Sooha Kim – photo © Johan Persson
For five weeks a little corner of Norwich has become part of Saigon, later Ho Chi Minh City, the troubled one time capital of Southern Vietnam. We are taken back to the horrors and aftermath of the Vietnam war in 1975 when America was in full scale retreat from a disastrous and bloody intervention in a South East Asian civil war.
Norwich Theatre Royal is hosting the mighty ‘Miss Saigon’ a lavish and large scale musical written by the same team who brought us Les Miserables – Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. From the very start we realise that this show reflects the racism, brutality and misogyny that characterised the American dominance of Saigon at the time in a depiction which has attracted protests throughout the 29 years since the show was first staged. The story may seem familiar, as it is stolen in its entirety from Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The context may have changed from Japan to Vietnam but the attitudes towards women remain set in ways that the 1904 opera audiences would recognise.
There exists a school of thought that good drama depends on extreme human behaviour to draw our attention – the number of murder thriller productions for example greatly exceeds the actual incidence of murder, at least in Norfolk. Within such thinking Miss Saigon has the freedom to tackle some difficult issues and contrast human strength and courage against corruption, oppression and exploitation but just as in ‘Butterfly’ the highest virtue is ultimately rewarded with a desperately distressing ending while the most sordid abusers seem to thrive throughout, with just one exception.
Stealing the Puccini plot inevitably invites a comparison of the musical offering between Butterfly and Saigon. While Puccini gave us some hauntingly beautiful and memorable melodies that have passed into many areas of our lives Schönberg and Boublil have created a score that services the show well but for me at least leaves no tunes in my head to hum on the way home. This is distinctly different from Les Miserables, a show rightly celebrated for the songs within. The plot is entirely expounded within the song lyrics which must constrain the compositional genius a bit. There are songs which this cast perform beautifully and movingly such as ‘I’d give my life for you’ but the tunes don’t stick with me.
Much of the action takes place in a Saigon brothel called ‘Dreamland’ run by ‘The Engineer’ a French/Vietnamese hustler. He dominates the show and carries much of the narrative in a role originally created by Jonathon Pryce in both West End and Broadway première versions of the show. The Engineer is a pimp, thief and violent exploiter of women, but this show takes us rather too far into making him heroic and engaging, giving the character many of the lighter moments in this generally grim tale.
My reservations above notwithstanding this is a stunningly impressive production from a first rate cast. Korean Sooha Kim is superb as the central character Kim, the country girl who falls into the bargirl life of Dreamland. Her first customer is disenchanted US sergeant Chris (Ashley Gilmour). Their night together turns into a deep and lasting love for each other and Kim’s fellow bargirls conduct an impromptu wedding ceremony for them. However as the last helicopters flee the Saigon US consulate Kim gets left behind. As a child she was betrothed by her parents to Thuy (Gerard Santos) who becomes a commissar in the new Communist Government and sets out to reclaim his childhood promised bride. He uses the compliant Engineer (Christian Rey Marbella) to seek out Kim, but she shows him Tam, her son by Chris. When Thuy tries to kill Tam Kim shoots Thuy dead with the gun left by Chris. This in turn gives the Engineer an opportunity to try and use Tam to secure an exit visa for himself and Kim to flee Vietnam for Bangkok.
Chris back in America has meanwhile married Ellen (Elana Martin) but remains troubled about Kim. Act Two sees him back in the Far East seeking Kim and the son he has been told about, helped by his former army companion John (Ryan O’Gorman). Once again, proceedings are complicated by the venal Engineer seeking his own advantage. Ashley Gilmour gives a very convincing portrayal of a trouble soldier struggling to cope with the damage caused by his exposure to warfare as a young man.
The six principals all perform superbly and are well cast for these demanding roles, where a clear singing voice is as vital as a wide range of physical and emotional acting skills. It is impossible not to engage with Sooha Kim as the young Kim, a girl with a clear vision of what she wants, but may never have. There will be tears as her story unfolds. The setting and action in Dreamland are predictably raunchy and sordid with near naked girls focused on the yankee dollars of their GI customers, a setting reprised in Act Two in the Bangkok equivalent, where uniforms of soldiers are replaced by the uniformity of gawky tourists staring at the sex shows. The effects in this show are massive and convincing, including the Huey chopper so close we feel we could touch it as the last desperate refugees clamber aboard. The orchestra is large and just occasionally makes it a little difficult to hear the precise lyrics from the singers in the complex acoustic of the Theatre Royal. This is not a quiet show.
Staging this production of Miss Saigon is a major achievement for the Theatre Royal which stretches the theatre to its limits, but we are rewarded with a very enjoyable and vivacious production of this heartbreaking romance which no theatregoer should miss. The predominantly Asian cast give us the closest possible experience of a troubled time in recent history. I would like to think that the undoubted unpleasantness of much of the human behaviour depicted might give us a pause to consider how each of us can work towards a world without bloody wars, cruel exploitation and desperate refugees so that we could see Miss Saigon as an historical account rather than the topical observation that it is in a world where military conflict still dominates the lives of millions. Go and see this show, admire the skills and dedication of the cast, then ask yourself ‘how can I work towards a world where refugees are not created’. But enjoy this classic show while it is here in Norwich.
© Julian Swainson 2018
Miss Saigon, Wed 15 August-Sat 15 September 2018 at 7.30pm, and Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Please note there are no Sunday performances. Tickets £8-£60. Discounts for Over-60s, Under-18s, and Groups. Audio-described and signed performance on Wed 29 August at 2.30pm. Captioned performance on Wed 5 Sept at 2.30pm.
Book now at www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000