Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: 'Braille Legacy' at the Charing Cross Theatre, 24th April 2017

Braille Legacy' reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

You'd be forgiven for assuming that a blind three-year-old boy in early 19th century rural France had a pretty miserable life ahead of him. At best pitied (and often mocked), the blind were considered ineducable, fit only for the most basic menial work. And yet that boy, Louis Braille, managed to create an alphabet that unlocked literature, communication, music for blind people worldwide and ended up buried in the Panthéon alongside Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola. 

His life is the subject of Braille Legacy, a new musical written by French musician Sébastien Lancrenon, translated by acclaimed translator Ranjit Bolt, and directed by Thom Southerland, whose previous musicals Titanic, Grey Gardens, and Grand Hotel received positive reviews (though they didn't exactly set my world on fire).

Set in Paris' Royal Institution for Blind Youth, we follow the young Braille (Jack Wolfe), a bright young boy frustrated by the inadequate 'embossed type' books for the blind. Doctor Pignier (Jérôme Pradon) sympathises with his plight, though he's primarily concerned with securing government funding to renovate the dilapidated school. 

Parliament simply does not see the point in assigning funding on teaching blind children to understand literature, history, and music - an opinion they share with cruel teacher Monsieur Dufau (Ashley Stillburn). Things look pretty bleak for the children, until Braille receives an experimental system of "night writing" that an army officer thinks could benefit the blind. Braille soon realises the idea might have potential.

Watching Braille develop his alphabet makes for some pretty compelling theatre, with songs like 'An Alphabet' ably communicating the thrill of discovery and applied thought. Wolfe does an excellent job highlighting Braille's heroic nature, making him intelligent, kind, and selfless without sacrificing his more human nuances. He's got a fantastic voice and stage presence and is pretty obviously a performer to watch.

When Braille Legacy is zeroed on its subject it works gangbusters, an entertaining history lesson on the origins, key developments, and gradual acceptance of Braille in France and around the world. But bubbling away in the background of the first act and coming to the forefront in the second is an unsuccessful B-plot revolving around the villainous Monsieur Dufau, played with Disney villain broadness. 

This feeds into a distractingly lurid missing children mystery, which eventually reveals that they've been murdered as human experimental subjects in an effort to cure the blind. As far as I can tell, this is a fictional conceit to ramp up drama in the final acts of the show (there were unethical experiments conducted around the same time, but as far as I can tell not fatal ones), and ends up distracting from the show's putative subject.

It's bewildering that most of Braille's life is relegated to a rushed narrative epilogue - especially considering he went on to become a renowned musician. After all, this is a musical about him, and we never see him perform a single note. 

Then again, Braille Legacy's book is nothing much to write home about - full of musical-theatre-101 melodies and thuddingly obvious forced rhymes. You'd think a story about a boy devising a new alphabet would indicate a bit of musical experimentation in the book - surely it'd be better for Braille's unique alphabet to be communicated in the musical structure rather than just sung about in the lyrics?

On the upside Braille Legacy is a concise and uplifting biography of a fascinating historical figure that gives a broad overview of how he invented his alphabet. It's well performed, nicely staged, and doesn't demand too much from the audience. On the downside the unnecessary second act subplots distract focus and it's weak tea musically. My verdict? A bit touch and go.

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