The Braille Legacy (Charing Cross Theatre, London, until June 24th)
Fighting against discrimination and changing the world through mad dreams could be the plot summary of any number of plays through the ages.
At Charing Cross Theatre, whose productions are increasingly becoming unmissable under the helm of artistic director Thom Southerland, the all too common story becomes an inspirational and compelling journey into light in the form of The Braille Legacy, being given its world premiere at this tremendous venue.
It is inspired by the true story of Louis Braille, the visionary young blind French boy who developed a now international reading system using a series of raised dots, challenging prejudice and injustice along the way.
Kudos to Sébastien Lancrenon, the classical music veteran, who had the initial idea for the musical and wrote the original French book and lyrics. It is puzzling that Braille’s story has not been told dramatically many times before, but Lancrenon grasps the opportunity and creates a piece which on this small scale is enthralling and deserves to go on to bigger things.
It is to this production’s huge credit that the disturbing and heart-warming tale never sinks into over-sentimentality. Instead it has a gritty determination at its centre that could even be described as revolutionary, but this needs to be distanced from other French musicals available in the West End as it has a courage and inventiveness all of its own.
The legacy of the title is not just Braille’s work on behalf of millions of blind people then and now, but there is a deeper message of friendship, treatment of others, a desire to break free from institutional constraints, and a plea for the right to be independent.
True, there are clichés in the telling and in Ranjit Bolt’s translation (the line in one song, “all for one and one for all” causes an involuntary cringe, for example) and one wishes for a little more factual background, such as the incident in childhood which caused Louis’ blindness and the encouragement he had from his parents which helped him grow up with such assurance and purposefulness.
But there is always much to admire and appreciate: from the outset Jean-Baptiste Saudray’s music is memorable and hugely likeable, while Tim Shorthall’s rotating cube set gives a constant sense of movement and action.
Southerland’s great skill is to make every member of the company important and it is especially true here: from Jérôme Pradon’s tenacious Dr Pignier, the director of the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, to the exceptionally talented youngsters who play students at the school, everyone matters and plays a part in holding the whole together.
Assured performances too from Michael Remick as Barbier, whose initial military work forms the basis for the Braillle alphabet; Lottie Henshall as his daughter; Ceili O’Connor as the supportive matron, Mme Demeziere; Ashley Stillburn as the teacher with a dark hidden agenda; and Jason Broderick as Gabriel, initially Braille’s tormentor, who becomes his closest friend.
Even in such a strong company, there is a standout performance by Jack Wolfe, making his professional debut as Louis Braille. He has the looks of a boyband member, with an intense stage presence and a rich voice that soars beyond the abilities of many young performers. Jack is a rising star who will benefit much from his mentoring here.
The Braille Legacy is, without doubt, a work in progress, but this will always be the case with new shows and in the crucible of Charing Cross Theatre, with such a hard-working company and production team, there is a sense that something of significance can be created which will leave its own legacy.
(A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/)