There were quips, mostly infantile, swirling around in my head about seeing a musical called The Braille Legacy that were more than matched by the punchlines of Mme Marie Barber (Kate Milner-Evans) regarding the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, France. Before the show started, a member of the theatre’s front of house team enforced the strict ‘no photography’ policy, which I found more than slightly ironic. Then, I gave up trying to read the programme because there wasn’t enough light in my section of the auditorium – in other words, I couldn’t see. And should I find the show satisfactory or better, how inappropriate would it be to say a show about Louis Braille (Jack Wolfe) is ‘well worth seeing’?
Wolfe’s Braille is an eager beaver, portrayed as a pupil keen to speak his mind, sometimes tactlessly, but never with the intent to offend or aggravate. His frustration in this ‘triumph over adversity’ story boils over every so often – but the apparent school bully, Gabriel Gauthier (Jason Broderick) goes from being foe to friend of Braille; he, too, is unhappy with the status quo. There was a different system, difficult and cumbersome, used before Braille devised his own reading system based on a dots-and-dashes invention by Captain Charles Barbier de la Serre of the French Army (Michael Remick). But Braille worked and worked and worked, and eventually his alphabet came about.
But, goodness me, this musical takes the scenic route just to make the point that a child prodigy had the intelligence to devise a language (of sorts) that bears his name to this day. The obstacles to be overcome were very steep, however, to the point where the Braille alphabet was never formally recognised by the Royal Institute for Blind Youth until after Braille had passed on, and it is a pity he never saw the fruition of his labours properly acknowledged during his lifetime. It was popular with the Institute’s pupils, however, and I’m not sure why the creative team felt it more impactful for Dr Pignier (Jérôme Pradon), the headmaster, to voluntarily resign. In reality, he was fired for having had a book translated into Braille, and for me, the real story seemed more commensurate with Pignier’s demeanour and the protestations from Louis Braille, amongst others, at news of Pignier’s departure.
This is a musical, however, and perhaps it wouldn’t have worked so well after all if Pignier disappeared from view. Done this way, he is at least able to speak for himself, without the disgrace of dismissal hanging over his head. This isn’t, however, a particularly joyful musical – the choreography (Lee Proud) is mostly about movement rather than dancing. It could have been happier. There’s scope for song and dance in the fantasy atmosphere a musical conjures up, particularly when Braille completes his alphabet, but it’s not utilised, arguably a missed opportunity. Oddly, even in darker moments, such as in the aptly-named musical number The Sun Will Never Rise Again, it’s not as hard-hitting and foreboding as it could be. It’s mostly in the spoken dialogue that the gloomier aspects of this admittedly riveting storyline are most vivid. Put simply, this would work better as a straight play.
The audience is, of course, fully aware how it ends even before the show begins – Braille is commonly known as the system used by the blind and partially sighted to read to this day. I have been made aware that there aren’t any actually visually impaired performers in this production, and that does seem something of a wasted opportunity. The blindfolds used were pointless, really, insofar as disdain from the likes of Dufau, a teacher at the Institute (Ashley Stillburn) and others were clear enough, and who the blind people (should that properly read ‘people with blindness’, as they are people first before anything else?) were is evident from their movements. And what’s with the revolving stage? When it spins around, there’s not much else on the ‘other’ side that isn’t on the previous one. At one point, it just turns and turns like the sign outside New Scotland Yard, with no narrative purpose.
A sinister subplot is in terrible taste, if only because it is untrue. Here, Catherine Lepage (at the performance I attended, Eliz Hassan: the child role is shared with Tallulah Byrne) and Gabriel Gauthier disappear from the Institute, much to the horror of Mme Demézière (Ceili O’Connor), and are murdered, apparently in the name of science. I could not find further details about what really happened to Catherine Lepage, which suggests nothing untoward happened. It transpires that Gauthier remained friends with Braille and was also given a teaching position at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. O’Connor’s Demézière was unintentionally comical with her melodramatic mannerisms, bringing to mind Helen Lovejoy out of The Simpsons yelling, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” But I have not found any evidence that there was any sort of actual scheme to find a cure for blindness that involved killing off Royal Institute for Blind Youth pupils, or indeed pupils from elsewhere. A real pity, then, that some people might come out of the show thinking there was Government-sponsored genocide going on: it was simply inserted into the narrative to heighten emotions. Tut, tut: a whole star lost because of this point, from this reviewer!
This musical abruptly runs out of steam, and rather lazily furnishes the audience with a stand-and-deliver executive summary of the adult life of Louis Braille, none of which is acted out at all. Braille went on to be an accomplished musician. And this is a musical. So why isn’t there a bit of actor-musicianship? Nonetheless, as it is, it’s an inspiring story, and one I’d never come across before in such detail (even if some aspects have been altered for dramatic effect), and the band in this production, directed by Toby Higgins, is excellent. But that doesn’t make up for a litany of weaknesses, even if I still think the fresh-faced and newly-graduated Jack Wolfe in the leading role will have a sterling career ahead of him.
Until 24 June 2017, Charing Cross Theatre.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.