Wednesday, February 25, 2015

'Miss Saigon' at the Prince Edward Theatre, 24th February 2015

With a deafening *thunk thunk thunk* of helicopter blades opening the show, Miss Saigon  leaves audiences in no doubt that they're watching one of the big musicals. After a record-breaking ten year stint in the Theatre Royal, Nicholas Hytner's bombastic production finally closed in 1999 after 4,000 performances. In 2014 it was resurrected in the Prince Edward, the producers hungrily eyeing the lucrative box office and cultural stature of its sibling show Les Miserables, situated just a couple of hundred metres down Old Compton Street.

Famously derived from Madame Butterfly, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical tells the tragic love story of Chris (Alistair Brammer), a US soldier and Kim (Eva Noblezada), a Vietnamese sex worker. Thrown together in the closing days of the Vietnam War, they fall in love amidst the hedonism of Saigon. After a hasty marriage ceremony Chris plans to bring Kim back to the US with him. But in the chaos of the US withdrawal the two are separated, Chris heading back to Atlanta and Kim left to a life of poverty.

A couple of years later the two reunite over the revelation that Kim has borne Chris a son, Tam. But, shock horror, in the interim period he's also gotten married to the All-American Ellen (Tamsin Carroll). On the personal scale these characters tackle the thorny thickets of abandoned love, accidental bigamy, arranged marriage, the fate of mixed race children and exploitation of women and on the macro-political scale Communism and Capitalism violently duke it out, all to a series of somewhat catchy showtunes. There's also a lot of flashing lights, loud bang, big bits of scenery and - aw-no-way-dude - an honest-to-god helicopter.

Miss Saigon, along with fellow stalwarts like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and The Lion King, is pretty much exactly the kind of show you'd expect to see on a prime West End stage. It's unselfconsciously big, tremendously loud, slick as hell and ultra-confident. If the fringe theatre that makes up most of what I see on stage are a fleet of yachts bobbing gently up and down in the sea, Miss Saigon is a 200,000 tonne cruise liner casually bonking them out of the way.  If you're a tourist in London and have £50 you want to splurge on a grandiose show, you won't be disappointed.

Let's face it, you're not going to see this kind of thing in some pokey theatre pub.
But is it actually any good? The woman sat in front of me who leaked tears like a broken tap seemed to think so. The plump oldies dutifully trooping onto a touring coach outside were all in good spirits. Even my fellow critics appeared to have had a great time. Me? Well, it was okay. I guess.

Me criticising a show like this is akin to an ant angrily pelting an elephant with grains of sand, especially as I can't think of anything particularly awful about it. It's more a combination of gushy melodrama, overly bombastic music and, perversely, that it was so professionally polished that spontaneity and personality are all but erased.

There's undoubtedly good bits, I was most engaged during two fantastical sequences that define the aesthetics of communism versus capitalism. Neat parallels are drawn between two gigantic golden idols of Ho Chi Minh and the Statue of Liberty, both ritually worshipped by blank-faced automatons, on the communist side black pyjama clad revolutionaries and on the capitalist side dancing nudie girls. This dichotomy allows Miss Saigon to evade criticisms of exploiting the Vietnam War for entertainment purposes; simultaneously giving lip service the political dimension while placing its central love story 'beyond' squabbling ideologies.

There ain't half a couple of wobbles though, all too often Miss Saigon appears every one of its 25 years old. Looming large is the uncomfortable fact that every single Vietnamese woman in the play is a sex worker of some kind. Admittedly, swathes of the show are devoted to the inhumanity of exploiting vulnerable young women, but these efforts are undermined by the fact that all the female inhabitants of the bar are beautiful, shapely and directed with an eye towards audience titillation.

Sexy and oh-so-exploited.
Miss Saigon gets a smidge more worrying if you approach it on a purely allegorical level, with Chris and Kim's relationship symbolising US intervention in Vietnam. Mid-way through the play our hero soldier, defending his decision to rescue Kim, exclaims "I'm American! How could I not intervene?!" Painting America's decision to intervene in Vietnam as a misguided attempt at humanitarianism, with the real tragedy "all the good we failed to do" is a light coat of imperialist whitewash on a grubby slice of American history.

But perhaps, just perhaps, West End audiences wouldn't fork over heaving fistfuls of pound notes to be hectored on the shortcomings of postwar Western foreign policy.  And, let's face it, a musical about the Vietnam War could be colossally, brain-breakingly bad, rather than the mere iffy awkwardness of Miss Saigon. 

On some level I wish I'd enjoyed Miss Saigon more than I actually did. The cast are precisely as talented as you'd expect from a show this extravagant, with special kudos to Jon Jon Brione's excellently lizard-like Engineer. But this combination of show-offy duets, middle-of-the-road ballads, overblown romance and plot beats so clunking they measure on the Richter scale just isn't my kind of culture. 

I did enjoy that helicopter though.


Miss Saigon is at the Prince Edward Theatre for the foreseeable future. Tickets here.

Huge thanks to Rebecca at Official Theatre for the press ticket.

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