We used to listen to the soundtrack on the long drives to the South of France for summer holidays (along with Les Mis’ and as much of the 1981 BBC Radio 4 radio series of The Lord of the Rings as mum could stand), and I have all the sheet music for the piano, frequently pounding out “Sun and Moon” on the ivories until Steve begs me to plug my headphones in (electric piano before you ask) so he (and the neighbours) don’t have to listen anymore. I have the soundtrack on my IPod and can often be heard singing along at full, off key volume in the kitchen whilst cooking a Sunday roast.
I have never been able to see it performed though as it was sadly cancelled in London in 1999. Imagine my excitement then when, around this time last year, I first saw the news articles that it would be re-opening in 2014, and my excitement levels rose when Mum suggested getting tickets for us all to see it for her birthday instead of our usual Christmas Eve tradition of going to the theatre (something I will miss this year).
In the weeks building up, my excitement levels rose. Finally the Saturday arrived. Steve picked me up from rehearsal at 11am and we floored it to my parents’ house, picked them and my sister up and drove up to London to park near China Town (where I had my first and last experience of Cha Siu Bao – the Chinese sweet bun filled with pork meat. I felt really queasy afterwards and never want to taste one again).
Once inside Dreamland, we talked about what we were most looking forward to and what we had read from the reviews. We knew some of the staging had been altered but that the iconic helicopter scene should still be largely the same.
The lights dimmed, the music started and the show got underway.
10 minutes later my Mum was ready to walk out.
By the interval I was struggling to remain positive. By the end we all agreed that it’s not something we would go back and see.
I’m trying to be objective here, but we were so disappointed with this show. I think the main problem of Miss Saigon is that it is dated – theatre has moved on significantly in the 15 years it has been off stage, with new effects, new ideas and new technology, and Miss Saigon just hasn’t been able to keep up. The helicopter – once jaw droppingly impressive, is now mildly remarkable, the set is still complex, but I’ve seen sets more elaborate. The choreography is neat enough, but I’ve seen choreography that is tighter and slicker. Other companies are doing ground breaking work in theatre at the moment- just look at The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 39 Steps, Urine Town and Wicked, and there is nothing new about Miss Saigon – they did it all 15 years ago, and it does not have the iconic status of Les Mis’ or Phantom to be able to still get away with doing it all the same. Even Starlight Express had to revamp itself, its score and its story at least twice during its run!
It was the excess of gratuitous nudity that did not sit well with my Mum. Mum and I are not prudes, and we both know perfectly well that Miss Saigon is partially set in a brothel, but there was in my mind at least absolutely no need for the simulated sex on stage during “The Heat Is On” and “Movie In My Mind” (especially with no warnings on any of the programme or booking information, and with huge numbers of children in the audience. All around the auditorium parents were covering their children’s eyes). In the American Dream sequence, Gigi appears wearing a pair of flesh coloured knickers, nipple tassels and a fur coat. It adds nothing to the sequence and just looked utterly demeaning. The video montage of post-war babies also felt like a search for a cheap emotive reaction, as though the creatives do not have the faith in either the music or their performers to be able to generate those emotions in the audience themselves.
Differing sensibilities aside, there were silly mistakes throughout – one of the dancer’s microphones wasn’t switched on so her line just fell silent. The actor playing John had his voice crack whilst singing Bui Doi. A curtain fell off a rail in the slums and during “The Morning of the Dragon” the dancers weren’t always marching on the same foot. These are silly, sloppy mistakes that you don’t expect to see in productions where you are paying up to £70 a ticket.
Having said that, I could have lived with all the above. Sure, it would and did annoy me, but my absolutely biggest bug bear with the production was the lighting. It was god awful – I left with a headache because I was straining so hard to see what was going on in all the scenes set in the dim streets and interiors of Vietnam. No one had their faces lit properly and in crowded scenes this made it very difficult when trying to see who was singing and what was going on. It also meant that a lot of the background filler action was lost. I muttered darkly to Steve for some time following the show about the need for the lighting director to be strung up.
It wasn’t all negative. Jon Jon Briones, the actor who played The Engineer, was stupendous, simply magnificent and he stole the show all on his own. Eva Noblezada (Kim) and Alistair Brammer (Chris) were independently both solid performances, with Noblezada particularly impressive during any scene where she had to have an emotional breakdown (happened a lot), but the chemistry between the two characters was lacking.
We all left the Prince Edward Theatre feeling rather deflated and also rather confused – reviews on Miss Saigon (both in the press and from friends who have seen it) have all been glowing, so why was our experience so negative? Was it just a bad night, the sum of a lot of small problems, or are we just incredibly picky? I genuinely do not know what the answer is, but I know it’s going to be a while before I play that soundtrack again. For me, it's a victim of its own legend and maybe it is harsh to judge it by that standard.
Afterwards we went back to Mum and Dad’s and ordered one of the best takeaway curries I have ever had – I ate far more than I should have and couldn’t stop stealing Mum’s naga curry sauce. At least the day ended on a high!
I really want to know what other people think of the show if you have seen it or have friends or family who have seen it! Pop your thoughts below...
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