The Braille Legacy
Charing Cross Theatre
24 April 2017
Charing Cross Theatre has been making a name for itself recently in musicals, with a spate of highly successful productions. However, this new translation of a French work has thoroughly let the side down with a series of irredeemable missteps.
In 1800’s Paris people fall into two camps; the ones who view the blind as mere freaks, and the ones who patronise them as poor little fragile things that need protecting. At the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, children are ineffectively taught using sheets of embossed letters. As such, reading is a slow, laborious task and writing virtually impossible. For young Louis Braille, this is unacceptable, and he is determined to make a change. His system of dots becomes the renowned Braille System, still used today. And that’s about it, bar some resistance from the authorities that is overturned after Braille’s death. That’s all that really happens in The Braille Legacy.
Sébastien Lancrenon (book and lyrics) and Jean-Baptiste Saudrey’s (music) show probably works better in its original French. Here is it lumbered with a disappointingly basic translation from Ranjit Bolt. Working to a pre-existing score means that Bolt is corseted in his translation. However, this is no excuse for the clunky, predictable rhymes that plague every song and the cliches that litter the dialogue. There are no memorable melodies that the audience will leave humming and there are several moments where Saudrey attempts to layer multiple harmonies, ending up as messy walls of noise. The opening number contains lots of exposition, but too much of it is lost, drowned out by the over-amplified band.
Efforts to promote Braille’s story as ‘incredible’ also fall flat. There’s a modicum of an interesting story here, and obviously, Braille’s efforts are applaudable, but with a complete lack of twist, revelation or scandal, it’s hardly dramatic stuff. It turns out that the dots system isn’t even originally Braille’s idea – Barbier, an army captain, donates a military code system, which the teenage Louis adapts and simplifies. A subplot in which children of the institute start to go missing and end up as medical guinea pigs is far more intriguing, but like token antagonist, one-dimensional schoolmaster Monsieur Dufau, there’s a sense of it being shoved in as an afterthought, or worse – padding.
Tim Shortall’s set is another curious element of the production. A revolvable white structure, on first glance its balconies and verandas suggest more deep south American homestead than Parisian structure. There’s a lot of the cast running from one side of it to the other for no apparent reason, and the performers playing the blind youth wear sheer black blindfolds, which are taken on and off throughout the show with no obvious theme.
Strong performances go a little way to save the show. In his professional debut, Jack Wolfe as Louis makes an endearing hero with a strong, sweet voice. As forward thinking Doctor Pignier, Jérôme Pradon is another highlight as he attempts to add some gravitas to proceedings. In ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’, an impassioned appeal to the Paris Assembly and one of the few passable numbers of the evening, he is absolutely magnetic. Kate Milner-Evans gives a scene-stealing turn as pompous Madame Barbier, and Ceili O’Connor commands the audience's attention as kindly Madame Demézière.
The children’s chorus perform in two alternating teams, and on this particular evening, the ‘Coupvray’ group were on. Theirs are impressively accomplished performances all round, but praise must go to the utterly fearless Tallulah Byrne, who looks more than comfortable in front of a crowd as little Catherine.
But whilst the cast are memorable, the show itself is instantly forgettable. Poor translation, vague concepts and an undramatic source material all make for a dispiriting and slightly uncomfortable fare.
Photos: Scott Rylander