Review: Miss Saigon
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David Cradduck watches Miss Saigon at The Mayflower.
Being a country bumpkin, I have not seen a great many big West End shows so cannot compare Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s latest touring production of Miss Saigon with either the original 1989 show in Drury Lane (yes, it really is nearly 30 years ), or the 2014 revival at the Prince Edward Theatre. But I have seen many a cracking show at The Mayflower and I can safely say that this rates as one of the most spectacular in terms of staging, set, lighting and sheer complexity.
Complete with that now famous helicopter scene – the desperate last minute evacuation of the last US troops from the roof of the American Embassy as Saigon falls in 1975 – Miss Saigon is nothing short of a visual and audio spectacle that wears its budget on its imperial flag.
Based on the 1903 Puccini opera Madam Butterfly and set against the backdrop of that most controversial of wars, the Vietnam war, Miss Saigon traces the doomed love story of Chris, a young and disillusioned American GI, with a 17-year old Vietnamese peasant orphan, Kim, who has been forced into prostitution in what can only be described as a fairly grimy Saigon brothel.
The opening sequence sets the scene for most of the show with some fairly graphic, though carefully choreographed, portrayal of the seedy goings on as war-weary American troops are let loose amongst the ‘easy’ Asian women of the night. I am not prudish but there were times when I felt a little uncomfortable with the no-holds-barred presentation of this section of humanity that none of us should feel very proud of.
No spoilers, but of course Chris falls for Kim and Kim falls for Chris; they ‘marry’ in a ceremony held sacred locally but which would be regarded by the Western world as invalid. Kim has a son about which Chris, long since returned to America and a new wife, knows nothing. It is a story with an inevitable, doomed ending and reflects the larger picture of the futility of the war itself, the horrors and atrocities, the imperialistic clash of ideals and hopelessness.
All this is set to Boublil and Schönberg’s music (equally famous for Les Misérables). Hardly a spoken word is uttered, the lyrics narrating the story. I don’t know if it is just me and my ageing hearing but the sheer volume and power of the score and its 110% delivery is often to the detriment of actually hearing those all-important words. That is not to say that there are some great numbers (none of which are as well known as their counterparts in Phantom of the Opera), some powerful singing and amazing orchestration, but I struggled to keep pace with what was going on some of the time.
On press night, the lead role of Kim was played by alternate actress 18-year-old Joreen Bautista, unbelievably at ease in her debut professional role. Talk about in at the deep end. She gives a fine performance as the troubled victim of circumstances and the chemistry between her and an emotional Ashley Gilmour as Chris, is palpable. Indeed, emotions play an important part in the main story line and are as visibly present in the other main characters: Red Concepción as The Engineer, the seedy, sinister, selfish, ambitious pimp who sees Kim’s son as his passport to a better life, is superb. He has some of the best lines and best songs (What a Waste, The American Dream) and is always the centre of attraction when on stage. His Fagin-esque character is both loathsome and lovable as he connives his egotistic ambitious way through the storyline.
Zoë Doano as Chris’s all-American wife puts in a very pleasing and plausible performance, as does Ryan O’Gorman as Chris’s buddy John. O’Gorman puts in a touching performance when John reminds his fellow countryman that the Bui Doi, the many children ‘conceived in Hell and born in strife’ as a result of liaisons between American servicemen and Vietnamese women (mainly prostitutes) are ‘all our children too’.
But above all, the staging of this show is the main star – it is a big budget production and it shows. The lighting is some of the moodiest and most complex I have ever seen. No resorting to quantities of smoke and dry ice here; scene changes are slick, clever and extremely effective through clever use of lighting. The sets are amazing and the way they are turned and moved to reveal different views of the same scene is impressive – notably the storming of the US Embassy gates, viewed from both inside and out almost at the same time.
By way of complete contrast the chaotic choreography of the nightclub scenes with gyrating girls (the exploitation of women strikes a particularly resonant note these days), is the revolutionary guard’s military marching scene below a huge metallic statue of Ho Chi Minh’s face. Reminiscent of something from present day North Korea or 1930s Germany, it is a colourful (very red), precise, breathtakingly impressive display of stomping, flag waving and fanaticism.
There is no place for the expression ‘less is more’ in this musical; it bombards you visually and audibly from start to finish, so much so that there is the danger of sensory overload. The whole show is, for my liking, about 15 minutes too long – some scenes and numbers seem unnecessarily drawn out – and although there is plenty to cry and be angry about I found myself in awe rather than being emotionally moved by the storyline, which gets a little buried under the sheer bravado of the staging.
Perhaps I have been a country bumpkin for too long. My ideal theatre is to be entertained and to come away feeling enriched and grateful for it. I regret that Miss Saigon, for all its glitz and glamour, has left me yearning for simplicity and a return to story-telling in its essence. But I am glad to have witnessed it; there is no doubting that many more thousands of people will continue to come and soak up the sensory bombardment and admire one of the most extravagant examples of modern theatre.
Miss Saigon runs at The Mayflower until Saturday 17th March. For tickets, call the box office on 02380 711811 or visit www.mayflower.org.uk