Miss Saigon swept up a record 9 gongs at the What’s On Stage Awards. Even as a die-hard “plays over musicals” type, I couldn’t help but be curious to see it for myself. Thankfully the wonderful people at Official Theatre had managed to snaffle some tickets at short notice, so I and some of the #LDNTheatreBloggers went along to see what all the fuss was about.
Set the sleazy brothels of Vietnam in 1975, the girls are forced into prostitution, and American GIs are looking for a good time and an escape from the horrors of war. The recently orphaned Kim falls for a soldier, Chris – but when Saigon falls, the military pull out and the two lovers are torn apart. There is love, loss, injustice, hope, despair, joy, unfortunate timing and complications. As tear-jerking, heart-wrenching formulas go, Miss Saigon has every base covered.
Eva Noblezada gives a detailed and complex performance as Kim – from naive, vulnerable and complicit right through tentatively lovestruck to angry and force to be reckoned with – all of this echoed in her immense vocal range. She commands the stage with great skill, but she is at her most striking during You Will Not Touch Him, filled with a primal determination to protect her child. Chris (Alastair Brammer) ticks every box on the all-American West End good guy checklist, torn between love and duty. His scenes with Kim are full of warmth and tenderness – completely at odds with the chaos erupting around them.
Rachelle Ann Go as stripper Gigi oozes sex from every pore – she confidently gyrates amongst the customers during the very graphic The Heat Is On In Saigon and this is contrasted heavily with her troubled bitterness in her haunting ballad The Movie In My Mind. The Engineer (Jon Jon Briones) is an abhorrent weasel, pretending to be everyone’s friend, but the only person’s side he’s really on, is his own. Briones imbues him with a vile slipperiness that makes your skin crawl, especially when other characters have no option but to trust him. He’s like a Vietnamese Fagin, but with better-looking urchins.
John (Hugh Maynard) undergoes quite a transformation from hardened soldier to a humanitarian worker, trying to make amends for the terrible mess left behind. Tamsin Carroll makes a brief but good performance out of her underused character Ellen, Chris’ American wife of 2 years. For someone written purely as the plot device to prevent the simple reunion between Chris and Kim, Carroll is genuinely likeable – crucial, in order for the ending to have its full impact.
A special mention must also go to the very young child playing Tam – his close rapport with Eva made their parent/child relationship very believeable and he was on stage during some very traumatic scenes, maintaining an incredible stillness – a big ask for a kid of his age.
As with many musicals, there’s a lot of “singing a conversation” – something which I tolerate rather than enjoy. However, the sound, lighting and stage design all work together as one, culminating in some truly terrifying moments – helicopters seem to thunder through the air above our heads, lights evoke the murky grime of the crumbling shanty towns, the tacky glitz of Bangkok and the warm glow of a comfortable hotel suite. The sets move in and out with ease, often leaving a large bare stage for the big displays of military might, and letting the space speak for itself at the end of Act 1 as Kim, Tam and the Engineer dare to hope that they might go to America. It would take the hardest of hearts to be completely unmoved by the projections of footage from the orphanages during the swirling crescendos of Bui Doi.
The final scene left me choked up – I was ready for the big finale (a devastatingly poignant reprise of Bui Doi perhaps), the bombastic company number with the entire cast belting with everything their lungs had left to give. I might prefer plays, but I want – and expect – musical theatre to move me to tears.
But it didn’t happen.
The ensemble filed onto stage in silence, took their bows (to rapturous applause), followed by individual walkdowns for the lead roles. Still nothing. The orchestra strikes up, but no one sings. They shuffle backwards, take a last bow, the curtain comes down and the house lights come up. Some would call it subtle, understated, less is more – I found it strangely clinical and unsatisfying. I wanted to be overcome and cry my eyes out – but I was denied that release.
A great show, a phenomenal cast, all very worthy of their 9 WOS Awards – I’m sure there will be many more trophies to come. I can see this being in the West End for a good few years. But how can you end a musical without a musical number?
Miss Saigon is currently booking until 19th December 2015 at the Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street, London, W1D 4HS. Contains strong language, violence and scenes of a sexual nature. Not suitable for children under the age of 12. For tickets and more information go to http://www.miss-saigon.com/