Today’s happy thing involves war, death, betrayal, and a roomful of people crying their eyes out. Good times!
I’m talking about the brilliant Miss Saigon, which has just returned to London’s West End after fifteen years away. We were very excited when we heard it was making a comeback, contributing to the record-breaking £4.4m taken on the first day of ticket sales back in September last year, and on Saturday my mum, sister and I finally got to see the new production.
The story is basically a re-write of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, but updated and moved to Vietnam in the final days before the fall of Saigon. Kim, a young girl forced into a life of prostitution after her family are killed, meets Chris, an American GI, and they have a brief but passionate love affair. Chris plans to take Kim home with him, but fate intervenes and she’s left behind, while he’s evacuated back to the USA. Funnily enough, it’s not a happy story, and if it weren’t for the comic relief provided by the Engineer, a wheeler-dealer and pimp obsessed with getting to America, I think it might all have been a bit too much.
Kim is played by Eva Noblezada, who’s only eighteen (seventeen when she was cast) and making her professional and West End debut in the role. This is insane, and if you saw her performance, you’d understand why. Seriously, someone of her age shouldn’t even be able to sing like that, let alone be able to convey such intense emotion. There were moments when I literally got chills, and that’s not something that I can say very often. You’d need to have a heart of stone not to feel Kim’s pain, and by the end of the show everyone in the theatre was in tears (the lady next to me was openly sobbing pretty much from the start). Of course, it didn’t help that they wheeled out a Comic Relief style video of abandoned Vietnamese children to accompany the opening number of the second act, ‘Bui Doi’. Shameless emotional manipulation, but effective in bringing home the fact that Miss Saigon isn’t just a story – although Kim and Chris are fictional, the show is based on real events, which shouldn’t be forgotten.
Quick mention for Jon Jon Briones, who’s played the Engineer many times before but is clearly still loving it. Despite his character’s willingness to use everything and everyone around him to get what he wants, he’s oddly loveable and his desperation to get to the USA, where he genuinely believes he’ll have a better life, is really poignant, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that his American dream is just that – a dream. Hugh Maynard (John) and Kwang-Ho Hong (Thuy) were the two other stand-out performances for me, although that’s not to say the rest of the cast weren’t amazing, because they were.
If emotion isn’t your thing, there are also some pretty cool special effects, not least the famous evacuation scene, in which a full-size helicopter is lowered on to the stage. And there’s also a very cute little boy, who has no lines and is mostly there to be hugged and flung around a bit by various characters, but who bears it all with a solemnity that got some of the biggest laughs of the afternoon (although to be fair, laughs are quite few and far between).
I think Miss Saigon may be sold out for quite a while, but it’s booking until at least April 2015, so if you get a chance, I really recommend it. But remember to take tissues and wear waterproof mascara – don’t say I didn’t warn you.