The Heat is still on in Saigon!
In general, there seems to be so few parts for Asian performers in the West End, which is a great shame. The talent pool, both in the National Theatre's current production of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's musical Here Lies Love, based on the life of former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, and at the Prince Edward Theatre for Cameron Mackintosh's revival of Miss Saigon, is extraordinary. Last night I took my visiting mother to see Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's classic musical, based on Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, and we were both blown away by the onstage performances.
As I first moved to London in late 2008, there is a number of shows I regret not having had the opportunity to experience live in the West End - the original production of Miss Saigon very high on that list. It premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in September 1989, played over 4,000 performances and finally closed in October 1999. In terms of Olivier Awards, it picked up two wins for its leading actors (Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer and Lea Salonga as Kim), however, it surprisingly lost out in the Best New Musical category to cult hit Return to the Forbidden Planet.
You can imagine my delight when it was announced that Cameron Mackintosh would be bringing his much-loved show back to London for nostalgic theatregoers, as well as a whole new generation, who didn't get to witness the spectacle the first time around.
Finally, after a delicious but over-priced Glühwein and Crêpe at Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland and a last minute rush from there to Soho as we realised the time was flying by a little too quick for comfort, we took our seats in the Stalls of the magnificent Prince Edward Theatre and took a deep breath...
The sets, the lighting, the costumes were all vivid conveyors of both the traditional and the dark aspects of 1970's Vietnam. The hustle and bustle ensemble members created in front of our eyes transported the domineering theme of desperation to the rest of our senses. The pace of the show also benefited from the interspersed scenes of crowds rushing across the stage, in the hopes of being 'rescued from this hell' by American GIs, who would wisk them away to 'a far away land of opportunity' - the sole goal of the piece's anti-hero The Enginner. The show-stealing performance by Philippino actor Jon Jon Briones in this role was faultless. It takes great talent for a coniving, sleazeball to get an audience rooting for him to succeed in his selfish ambitions. Learning that the character had to 'pimp out' his own mother from a young age, a traumatic and unnatural situation for any child, you can't help but wish a better life for him. Making both her West End and professional debut, the emotions poured out by enchanting newcomer Eva Noblezada, performing eight times a week as leading lady Kim, must tug at even the most hardened of theatregoers' heart strings. As we left the theatre, my mother pointed out a young gentleman having to be consoled by his girlfriend as tears streamed down his face. Maybe there was a lot of dust in the air in the theatre last night, as they often protest?
The very talented Alistair Brammer, who I have previously seen in Les Misérables at the Queens Theatre and War Horse at New London Theatre, also conveyed the high degrees of emotion needed, however was perhaps slightly miscast in the role of Chris. I would have liked to see someone a little older and less boyish in the role, which is certainly nothing against Mr Brammer's talent. The scenes with the equally-talented and age appropriate Tamsin Carroll as his American wife Ellen, highlighted his youthful appearance.
As the life-size helicopter landed on stage amongst panic-stricken Vietnamese civillians and took off again, heartbreakingly seperating Chris and Kim in the musical's flashback scene - still one of the most iconic and impressive scenes in musical theatre history - I was subject to an out-of-body experience myself, imagining being a passenger looking down on the masses of desperate human beings becoming smaller and smaller as we flew off into the orange skies of sunset. Breathtaking!
After all these years, the heat is certainly still on in Saigon!
Sub-Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com