The life of Louis Braille is fascinating. By the age of fifteen Braille had showcased the first version of his life-changing reading system now known around the world. Blind people – and their education – faced profound discrimination in nineteenth century Paris and the story of Louis Braille is thrilling, inspirational and epic. The Braille Legacy is not.
The musical charts the development of Braille, both the boy and the system. Louis is a precocious, emotional and erratic young man with a passion for learning. He lives at the decrepit, unhygienic Royal Institute of Blind Youth where he is mistreated and misunderstood by many of his classmates and teachers.
Dr. Alexandre François-René Pignier, the Insitute’s Principal, however, sees something in Louis, and encourages his efforts to read. The show follows Louis’s early struggle for independence, freedom and equal opportunity. It is a story that still rings true. A single subplot adds drama to what is otherwise one man studying through the introduction of a childcatcher-like character who is using – and losing – the lives of blind children in search of a cure for the ‘affliction’.
The Braille Legacy is the original idea Sébastien Lancrenon. A former professional solo singer, he left his job as Director of Radio Classique in France to focus his efforts on developing the show in London. He is also the author of the French Book and Lyrics. The love and knowledge of music is clear in the piece – but so is Lancrenon’s inexperience.
The story is essentially a compelling Wikipedia page with hints of Annie or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Characters tend to be broad sweeps and often contrary in their behaviour. Renowned adaptor and translator Ranjit Bolt has overseen the piece’s translation into English but it is difficult to know who to blame for the clunky, clichéd lyrics and melodramatic pronouncements. Perhaps they weren’t so toe-curling in French?
Music is by Jean-Baptiste Saudray who has composed for and worked with various international artists, including Ray Charles, Jean-Michel Jarre, The Gypsy Kings and David Guetta. No mention in his biography, however, of working on musicals. Again, this shows.
The music is pretty and compelling but overly familiar and ultimately unmemorable. There is no eleven o’clock let alone eight, nine and ten o’clock numbers to satiate an audience. Most end with loud, long drawn out notes, the cast heavily backlit with blue just in case we weren’t aware social decorum dictated applause.
The content of the show is interesting but its drama is hardly visible. In response, Thom Southerland, Artistic Director of Charing Cross Theatre, acclaimed for productions such as Titanic and Grey Gardens, has created a production that is heavily symbolic and ritualistic. Shame that none of the visually impaired audience members can see this.
The main flaw of the production is its complete failure to incorporate any form of access aesthetic. Leading disabled-led theatre companies such as Graeae and Access All Areas are creating exciting and vibrant work that embraces and embeds accessibility into its very work. In a piece that first and foremost, its foreword says, is for blind audiences – where is the audio captioning? (Answer: one matinee and one evening show in the middle of the run).
What about surtitling for those hard of/without hearing? Heaven forbid the cast comprises of anyone visually impaired themselves as we all know blind people cannot sing. Of course, producers’ cries of increased costs may have dampened any creative desire for inclusion but provisions for reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act and government schemes such as Access to Work really do make this decision unconscionable and simply uncreative.
Some efforts must have been made to receive the support of the Royal National Institute of Blind People however to not include any information on their decisions or their processes in outgoing marketing material gives an impression of thoughtlessness.
There is something fundamentally ick-making about watching a sighted person ‘crip up’ by ceremonially wrapping fabric around their head. The theatre and film industry are deep in discussions of diversity – must musical theatre be the next to follow?
The sung performances are reasonably enjoyable however Company-wide the acting sits and stays at a level just below par. Veteran performer Jérôme Pradon seems to be stuck in Les Mis mode however newcomer Jack Wolfe makes an assured debut. His contemporary, wide-ranging voice adds clarity to an otherwise busy and confused production, not helped by the wobbly, ever-revolving set.
The story of Louis Braille is heroic and deserves to be retold. Literally re-told as this one just isn’t good enough. Disabled actors, distinctive music and an inclusive style of presenting material that talks to rather than about visually impaired patrons would create a compelling, perhaps visionary production. At the moment, to quote The Braille Legacy itself, it is the “blind leading the blind”.