Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review The Braille Legacy


The Braille Legacy 
Original idea, French book and lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon
Music by Jean-Baptiste Saudray
Translation by Ranjit Bolt

Joining The Dots
http://www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/

The story of Louis Braille of the eponymous punched dot system of reading and writing for the blind is a fascinating one. Not only as, in musical theatre terms, a triumph over tragedy story. But also for the the blind as the nexus of philosophical, political, professional and medical vested interests in France during the 19th century

If this sounds heavy going, it doesn't need to be and there is plenty to enjoy in the new musical with book by Sébastien Lancrenon translated by Ranjit Bolt and music by Jean-Baptiste Saudray - as far as it goes.

For it feels like a piece shorn of context and we suspect essential aspects may have been cut to shoehorn the story into an "Anglo-Saxon" model of a musical.

In terms of musicals, it's a story which remains a curiosity with no love interest except if love of culture and learning and teaching counts as a love interest.

This also feels like a musical which has been put on with the basic elements in place but before a dramatic, entertaining way of explaining the particular political and intellectual circumstances swirling around Louis has been worked out.  

Louis Braille was born in the early nineteenth century when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was at the height of his powers and died young, just when Napoleon's nephew, previously president of the French Republic, mounted a coup d'état turning France into a hereditary imperial monarchy. So when a blind boy surprises a sighted Parisian recognizing by touch a coin as "a crown", there's a meaning. But frankly who would know?

The head of the Parisian school for blind youth is deprived of funds, called a "zookeeper" - the huge revolving white set from Tim Shorthall is  the centre of the menagerie - and the blind viewed as freaks.

Yet despite the dilapidated, filthy conditions, the school still gave the best education available to the blind. Against the odds and at a time of violent political turmoil, Louis pioneered there a system of touch writing for the blind allowing them not only to become students but. just as importantly, teachers.

The musical directed by Thom Southerland has only unexplained glimpses of the wider context  affecting Louis (Jack Wolfe). We learn that the French parliament is corrupt and of the fight between those who want to educate the blind and those who seek only to "cure" blindness by surgery, believing giving the blind an education to be a retrograde step.

This is principally shown in a philosophical heads-on between the chief of the Parisian school,  Dr Pignier (Jérôme Pradon), and an ambitious teacher Monsieur Dufau (Ashley Stillburn). Their struggle is characterised by the attitudes of 18th century enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. Yeah, those two, we all know what they represent, don't we?😲

Watching The Braille Legacy, TLT and her own automotive compatriote (vive le feu tricolore!) had the impression that something was missing or maybe had been cut. There's a stirring score starting with a habitual celebration of Paris, but with more context, the songs could almost be a satirical rejoinder to the heroics of French culture which had lofty ideals for the blind in theory but in practice subjected them to punishing regimes.

The ancient National Library Of France is flattened into a place from where Louis is thrown out. The role of the imagination, the inner life and resources of the blind is mentioned. However the opportunity to bring forth the ghosts of those philosophers, politicians and writers with conflicting views of the blind in a battle of the books with the potential for humor and wit, and the blind children at the centre, is entirely overlooked.

And yet there is just enough there for us to sense that there should be something more, even if the story is diverted into a series of more conventional conflicts: the hostile teacher ready to administer the cane and damage Louis's precious sense of touch; a struggle with fellow pupil Gabriel (Jason Broderick) and with the army captain (Michael Remick) whose "night writing" devised to help soldiers communicate in the dark was the initial inspiration for Braille.

The use of blindfolds to convey the physical state of blindness and the limitations put on the children seems to draw on a famous painting of First World War soldiers called Gassed where, blinded by mustard gas,  the men stand blindfolded in a line with a hand on the shoulder of the man in front.

The monetary burden on the state of paying pensions for members of the armed forces was indeed another reason why a surgical cure was the preferred route but the image alone cannot convey the commercial imperatives which could have added bite to the story.

As it is, another story concerning the children, which almost has the atmosphere of concentration camp experimentation, added in the second act only serves to underline an unevenness of tone and an uncertainty over the plot. 

Still, the band under Toby Higgins and epecially the choral singing of the cast gives power to the tale. Jack Wolfe is a winsome curly haired Louis Braile with a sweet tone to his voice while Jérôme Pradon makes a distinctive Dr Pignier.

The Braille Legacy gives clues that it is also dealing with France's image of itself in the light of  the Enlightment and Revolutionary ideals and its treatment of its blind citizens. It's just a pity more thought hasn't been given to more entertaining and ironic ways into the story.

Maybe this musical will still be given a chance with further development of the book to to match Jean-Baptiste Sauday's score and Thom Southerland's affecting and effective staging, but this appears to have been put on before it was ready. For the performances we give an amber/green light.

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