Review: Miss Saigon (Prince Edward theatre, London)

Cameron Mackintosh‘s revival of Miss Saigon opened earlier In the year to largely great reviews. And at a time when new musicals are struggling to find an audience, it has led to a string of revivals taking residence in London, with Cats and Evita set to open later in the year. But does it still pack the punch of the original, or is this just a watered down version?

 

For anyone not familiar with the 80s musical classic, Miss Saigon centres on a young girl called Kim (played by Eva Noblezada). Forced into a seedy life of go-go dancing she meets the love of her life Chris (Alistair Brammer) before he is sent back to the USA during the fall of Saigon.

The trouble is, Chris returns and marries another woman (Ellen, here played by Tamsin Carroll) while Kim is left with his child and the manipulative Engineer (Jon Jon Briones) who dreams of finding his way to the States.

I’ll admit I knew very little about Miss Saigon before the evening’s performance; I had heard the cast recording a total of twice, I was aware it was set during the Vietnam war, and knew that a helicopter was involved at some point. Surprisingly, even with a jump of three years and a flashback, the story is simple enough to easily follow.

What’s clear from the outset is that we’re in for a two and a half hour emotional roller coaster. The evening whisks along at an incredible pace, pitching one ballad after another to pull at the audience’s heart strings as the story moves at an electric pace. From ‘The Movie in my Mind’ sung by Rachelle Ann Go’s stunning (and vastly underused) Gigi, to the frankly over-dramatic ‘Why God Why?’, the lovers’ anthem ‘The Last Night of the World’, and Kim’s promise to her son Tam ‘I’d Give my Life for You’, there’s very little let-up throughout.

In fact the score is about 70% ballads, littered only with a handful of ensemble numbers (mostly sung by The Engineer in the clubs of Saigon and Bangkok) and imperial anthems by the Vietnamese army – both of which give a welcome break from the drama of the main narrative. Overall it’s an odd mix, but it just about pulls it off without being too much of an emotionally draining evening.

For the most part the performances in this new version are great. Jon Jon Briones shines as The Engineer. Now a veteran of Miss Saigon, he received easily the biggest cheer of the night. Eva Noblezada was more than adequate as Kim – her vocals are a good match for the score, even if her acting was weak in parts.

Elsewhere Alistair Brammer was a perfectly fine Chris, and Tamsin Carroll made for an understanding Ellen – although I’ll admit her vocals sounded strained in places.

For me the set was the weak link in the evening. Here, designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley have revamped Adrian Vaux’s earlier tour designs, expanding them to make them more suitable to the west end stage. But the scenery on show struggles to outlive its touring heritage.

While a number of scenes have clearly had money thrown behind them (the fall of Saigon, American dream and Bangkok) the rest stay very much the same throughout the remaining two hours, being dressed slightly differently for each location, rather than new set pieces being used. There’s also an interesting lack of automation, which while keeping running costs down, does jar with the expectations on a 21st century big budget production.

That said, when you witness a model helicopter landing on stage with wind blowing around the auditorium and Vietnamese refugees climbing barbed wire gates, you can’t feel too hard done by.

That’s not to say the staging doesn’t work, but the key word here is ‘functional’ rather than ‘impressive’. And with such an imposing proscenium design I was hoping for the latter. But perhaps ‘functional’ is what director Laurence Connor was after this time. Just take a look at Bruno Poet’s lighting design, which is greatly understated throughout, adding a claustrophobia to the stage that makes Saigon and Bangkok feel all the more oppressive.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

And it very nearly got four. Overall, this is a solid revival. And while (from what I’m told) it doesn’t live up to the grandiose of the original, it’s a more than adequate introduction for newbies to Saigon. Backed by some very solid performances, and with a couple of stand-out scenes, it packs a punch that is uncommon in a lot of new shows arriving in London.

Miss Saigon is currently booking until 25th April 2015. Tickets can be purchased from the Delfont Mackintosh website.

And the seat…

Stalls, row O, seat 3. At second price, this seat really can’t be faulted. Yes, the loges above impede slightly into the view of the proscenium but they didn’t get in the way of any action, and it was still close enough that it was easy to see facial expressions throughout. Definitely one to consider over paying full whack.

I would be interested in seeing it again from the upper circle. I’ve read criticism that this is a show to see close up, and I can see how being much further than I was this time could make you feel somewhat distant and uninvolved.

Prince Edward Theatre Stalls Row O Seat 3
Prince Edward Theatre Stalls Row O Seat 3
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