Miss Saigon: The dark horse of the West End

THERE’S truly nothing like a West End production. From the atmosphere, to the sheer spectacle of it all, a West End production is the epitome of the musical theatre genre.

But that’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows, as Miss Saigon reminds us. Revived for the West End, it feels as fresh as it did more than two decades ago, and just as seedy and dark. In its advertisements, it was touted as “the greatest musical of all time”. Such a bold statement, which when compared with the likes of West End Story or even its sister production Les Miserables, it’s tough to comprehend how the show got this accolade. However, setting Madame Butterfly, itself known for being one of the most heartbreaking operas, to Vietnam just after the Fall of Saigon as masterfully as Boublil and Schönberg did has to account for something.

But that’s the magic of Cameron Mackintosh and his team. When watching it, you do feel that it is the greatest of the great. From the dark, meaty atmosphere of Dreamland, where the dreams of young Vietnamese girls go to rot under the watchful gaze of the Engineer, to the glorious crescendo that comes with the rise of communist Vietnam in “Morning of the Dragon”, you’re sucked into this colourfully seedy world. The colour palette of the show, crafted by Totie Driver and Matt Kinsey just scream the wrong kind of gaudy; the kind that you can’t help but look and feel sorry for the girls as they grind and dance their way to what they think is freedom with smiles on their faces. Every moment in the show is hand-crafted to make the audience feel like the war, and its result, was hell for everyone it touched. Even the standard villain Ellen gets a new song, “Maybe”, which shows her heartbreak and plight in a new, harsh light, humanising her, with tear-jerking results.

Eva Noblezada as Kim and Kwang Ho Hong as Thuy

The young Eva Noblezada captures all the vulnerability and hidden wrath that comes with Kim, going from a young, naïve country girl to the battle-weary mother trawling through the remains of the war. Her voice both crumbles and soars as the drama unfolds. In contrast, her Chris, played by Alistair Brammer, manages to keep up with her, but unfortunately gets pushed aside both by Kim and the Engineer. Played by veteran Jon Jon Briones, the Engineer gave the show its sardonic humour and pitch-black tone, going from comic relief to outright villain without missing a step.

But as the show delivered its blood-red cynicism in spades, it lacked the heart that makes or breaks a musical. Even the seedy joy that seeped out of the Engineer wasn’t enough to make the audience leave the theatre in melancholic awe. Perhaps it was the goal: it was about the futility of war and what it does to its victims. And with the current events, it seems appropriate to revive this masterpiece.

Overall, Miss Saigon is an awe-inspiring show, which hits as hard now, if not harder, than it did when it opened all those years ago. It absolutely reeks of heart-wrenching moments, right up to the last note, but don’t expect a funny interval or a light-hearted break between the tears. Amongst all the happy songs and smiles that the West End is known for, Miss Saigon is the dark, gaudy horse of the West End.