Friday, 05 May 2017

The Braille legacy

For a backstory with so much potential, this musical doesn’t pack the emotional punch it really needs

Written by Richard Barber

A musical based on the transformative discovery of Braille and how it revolutionised the ability of the blind to read is clearly freighted with good intent. So how nice it would be to report that this uplifting story really hits the spot. Nice, but sadly not possible.

The Braille Llegacy is a curiously under-powered affair short on narrative drive and with a musical score that calls to mind a sort of third-division echo of Les Mis (music by Richard-Barber-colour-176Jean-Baptiste Saudray, original lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon clunkily translated by Ranjit Bolt).

Part of the problem is in director Thom Southerland’s staging. Set designer Tom Shortall has come up with a large, two-tier construction that’s constantly revolving to no great purpose, and up and down the stairs of which characters frequently run for no very good reason. The fact that it looks like a Malibu sun lounge circa 1970 doesn’t help either, given that we’re meant to be in 1830s Paris.

The result is that it leaves too little room for the actors to strut their stuff on the already tiny stage of the Charing Cross Theatre. And that’s a shame, because this is clearly a story that could and should wring the withers. We’re in a home for young blind people headed by a visionary director (Jérôme Pradon, a strong singer but why the wandering French accent, and particularly since everyone else is speaking RP?).

There’s a baddie in the shape of one-dimensional beastly teacher Monsieur Dufau (Ashley Stillburn), who’s in league with an eye doctor experimenting on ‘kidnapped’ pupils from the school. And then there’s Louis Braille himself, blinded by an accident, although we’re never told what, but headstrong and clever and determined to crack this new reading system.

Since we know from the start he’s going to succeed (the clue is in the surname), you need much more light and shade before good can prevail. But newcomer Jack Wolfe has the look of a boy band member with a surprisingly sweet singing voice and might well go on to greater things.

There’s also a well-acted, well-sung turn from Ceili O’Connor as the kind-hearted Madame Demeziere, matron of the institute. And the children who play the other pupils acquit themselves well. The trouble, though, with so many young people in a production is that it evokes nothing so much as a school play. And this is the West End.

Until 24 June at Charing Cross Theatre, Villiers Street, London WC2: 0844-493 0650, 

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