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The Braille Legacy (Charing Cross Theatre, London): Review

braille legacy To see, or not to see. Jack Wolfe (back) and Jason Broderick (front). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

The Braille Legacy is a grand and visually rich musical that charts an important and worthy piece of history: the development of Braille dots.


Louis Braille is the inventor of the language of raised dots that took his name, that enables people with sight issues to read by touch rather than sight. However, it’s development in 19th century France wasn’t an easy feat, as charted in The Braille Legacy, as Braille and his companions were met with, misplaced pity, cruelty, and even murder.

Braille Legacy

Black and white. The cast of ‘The Braille Legacy’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Book

I’d never given Braille dots much thought, as I’m lucky enough to still have my sight. However, I’m fully aware of how indispensable they are to people with sight issues in enabling them to read. Yet, I had never considered how the tactile language had come to be, assuming it was something that just happened and that was that. Sebastien Lancernon’s musical illuminates audiences on it’s fraught and dramatic history, something which has a lot of worth in doing. Indeed, Louis Braille’s life and struggle makes great musical material: sabotage, betrayal, murder, prejudice, and injustice. Despite it happening nearly 50 years after the French Revolution, there’s still a fiery spirit of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” that embodies Braille and his companion’s struggle as blind children living in France at that time, that is reminiscent of the revolution itself and just as gripping. The Braille Legacy is a story that absolutely should be told because it’s one of triumph over some rather stark nastiness, and has also documenting the creation of something that is vital to many people across the world over for nearly 200 years.

The Braille Legacy’s book does fairly well in getting across Braille’s history. There’s a lot to pack in and explore, so it was never going to be something that’s overflowing with depth and nuanced character development, but neither does The Braille Legacy feel rushed. The only real criticism is that a couple of the characters do feel very one-dimensional to point of pantomime, particularly antagonist Dafau. But although The Braille Legacy’s succinctness in exploring the history rather than its people might be a touch irksome, it does give it a feisty pace that means, even though some of the characterisations aren’t exactly Pulitzer Prize material, it’s difficult to get bored and become disengaged. There’s enough intrigue and drama inherent in the saga that makes up for its slightly shallow characters.

Braille Legacy

Dotty. Jack Wolfe as Louis Braille in ‘The Braille Legacy’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Music and Lyrics

It’s a shame that The Braille Legacy’s lyrics are really what lets the musical down. The Braille Legacy was originally in French, so what is being staged in London is a translation. The problem is that The Braille Legacy’s lyrics are often obvious, awkward, and at several points a little bewildering as to why anyone thought the words chosen were a good idea. However, it’s difficult to criticise a translation as it’s current English incarnation may well be trying too hard to stay faithfully to the original French text, whilst trying to make the English words as lyrical as possible within songs, which means ensuring there’s a rhythm and a rhyme present at all times. You certainly do feel that a bit more effort to produce a text that is a bit more poetic and rich to match Jean-Baptiste Saudray’s rather sumptuous score. In saying that, although some may almost certainly cringe at the clunky translation, it’s rude nature doesn’t actually distract much from the telling of the story or the putting across of the narrative and emotive elements of The Braille Legacy that it should be completely dismissed as “merde”. However, another stab at a more inspiring set of lyrics certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

As mentioned, Saudray’s score is indeed rather grand. There’s a classical, almost operatic, emotion that sweeps through the entirety of The Braille Legacy that builds, billows, and crests with a real sense of grandeur. That being said, there’s nothing particularly memorable in The Braille Legacy’s score, and certainly isn’t going to be hummed alongside Les Miserables on the tube home. However, it does certainly transport you swiftly and richly through Braille’s tale that feels emotionally and aurally satisfying.

Braille Legacy

Doing lines. The cast of ‘The Braille Legacy’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Direction and Production

Thom Southerland’s Artistic Director residency at the Charing Cross Theatre is already paying dividends, if The Braille Legacy is anything to go by. Although this show doesn’t involve Southerland’s usual partner in crime, producer Danielle Tarento, it by no means lacks any less lustre. Tim Shorthall’s set looks strange and modern with flourishes of regency fleur d’elises, but gives The Braille Legacy the space and visual intrigue to play about with. Everything in Shorthall’s design in plays with darkness, light, and sight in quite a striking way, especially with see-through walls and mirrored pillars. Jonathan Lipman’s period costumes are similarly entrenched in such strong visual themes, having all the blind children in white, whilst all the seeing adults in black: a clever inversion of what those polar colours’ myriad meanings. This is further augmented by the sharp use of blind folds to suggest sight both physical and cerebral as well as being incredibly visually arresting.

The fact that the central structure is see-through and able to revolve means that it gives plenty of room for Southerland to really literally push a physical pace. The structure spins giving The Braille Legacy a maelstrom-like visual energy that pushes as much as Saudray’s music. Furthermore, the set’s transparency means that Southerland creates some beautiful moments where cast members can be seen lined-up against the wall at the back, almost like ghosts. Although this space is tight, Southerland ensures that every resource available capitalised to fantastic effect.

Lee Proud, returning to choreography another of Southerland’s shows, does himself no disservice, adding to the stream of movement in Southerland’s direction. It might not be all out toe-taping, high-kicking spectacle Proud’s done before, such as in Grand Hotel, but that’s because it’s not what The Braille Legacy needs. What Proud has produced instead is a feeling of gorgeous fluidity that does complements it wonderfully.

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Pradon Bleu! Jerome Prado as Doctor Pignier in ‘The Braille Legacy’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander

Cast

Jerome Pradon and Jack Wolfe give two standout performances in The Braille Legacy. Pradon gives a fierce and fiery performance as the head of the school for blind children, fighting ferociously in their corner, culminating in a performance that is undoubtedly rousing making you rally with him for the entire show.

Wolfe’s performance as the titular character glows with youthful brio and optimism. Wolfe pretty much outshines the bright whiteness of their costume and illuminates the stage with their presence. For someone so fresh out of performance school (graduating this year), Wolfe is a shining star that will most likely only get brighter. In the meantime, Wolfe’s performance in The Braille Legacy is one that encapsulate an intensive hope, intelligence, and tenacity that is as intoxicating as you’d expect from such a fascinating lead character.

Verdict

It would be easy to give The Braille Legacy only three stars because of its substantial faults. But when it boils down to an evening of enlightening entertainment, you’re swept along with the sheer grace of The Braille Legacy that, whilst by no means a perfect musical, is as stirring a night out as you can have in the West End.

The Braille Legacy plays at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL, until 24 June 2017. Tickets are £22.50 – £39.50. To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.