Good French musicals are a rarity in London, apart from one that arrived in 1984 and has remained ever since. This new one composed by Jean-Baptiste Saucray with book and lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon is so similar to Les Misérables in musical style, construction and melodramatic intensity that it almost feels as if it could have crossed on the same ferry, but no-one is betting on it achieving the same longevity.
The chief difference is that The Braille Legacy is based on fact, telling of the teenage years that Louis Braille spent in a boarding school, the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, and the development of the system that enables the blind to read, which still bears his name today. In Ranjit Bolt’s lucid translation, the storytelling is brisk and efficient; the opening song, Paris, gives us all the background detail that we need, taking us to a bustling city of academics, artists and enlightenment where the blind and others with disabilities are regarded as “freaks”. The Institute looks like an import from Dickensian England, presided over by kindly, progressive Dr Pignier (Jérôme Pradon) and cruel, regressive Dufau (Ashley Stillburn), the show’s equivalent to Javert in Les Mis.
Director Thom Southerland’s brand of quality is stamped all over the production, with what are becoming trademarks clear to see – a central set on two levels (designer Tim Shortall), flowing and uninterrupted movement (choreographer Lee Proud) and impeccable solo and choral singing that has crystal clarity, every word in every lyric being given due respect. The voices here make sounds every bit as exquisite as in Southerland’s Titanic and Ragtime. The first notes are heard as blindfolds are placed over the eyes of teenagers and children, all dressed in their white Institute uniforms, and a lump comes to the throat that never goes away.
Young Jack Wolfe gives a wonderfully controlled performance as Louis, yearning for the right to read and withstanding ejection from public libraries and beatings from Dufau as he progresses single-mindedly towards his goal. Jason Broderick as Gabriel, Louis’ foe turned friend and Ceili O’Connor as Mme Demézière, the Institute’s matron, also tug at the heartstrings.
The story has dark undertones with the argument that public finances need to be spent on eliminating blindness, rather than on improving life for the blind, looming large and suggesting similar for other human abnormalities. Some may argue that turning Louis’ life into a musical melodrama trivialises these themes, but, once Southerland waves his magic wand and we hear the glorious singing, such concerns dissipate and we succumb to all the emotional manipulation that follows. Vive La France!
Performance date: 19 April 2017