Theatre Review: Miss Saigon

Date Posted: 28/05/2014

With high hopes for tears, a spine-tingling score, and a helicopter sequence, Rebekah Tailor reviews the West End revival of Miss Saigon.

It’s counted as one of the 80s' ‘mega musicals’ alongside the likes of Les Misérables and Phantom, and its infamous helicopter scene has become the stuff of West End legend. The reputation of Miss Saigon precedes the revival by almost a quarter of a century, and last September - eight months prior to opening - it set a box office record, selling more tickets in a single day than any other theatre show in the world.

With this in mind, and knowing all too well the consequences of Puccini’s 1903 opera Madame Butterfly on which Miss Saigon is based, I expected three things of this new West End revival: a spine-tingling score, tears, and a helicopter sequence. So two out of three isn’t bad - unless you count the woman with mascara-stained cheeks who left the theatre in front of me.

That’s not to say I wasn’t moved; there were some incredibly emotional scenes, and you can’t fail to be stirred by the story itself. It depicts the love affair between US soldier Chris and young bar girl Kim, whose lives are torn apart by the Fall of Saigon - a period which marked the end of the Vietnam War. Fast-forward three years to the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, where Kim - alone with her young son Tam - still desperately believes she’ll be reunited with her American GI.

Too much time is spent building the blossoming romance between Chris and Kim. Between their maudlin love songs and the scantily-clad prostitutes of Saigon cavorting around the stage with GIs, by the end of the first scene in act one, I was bored.

It isn’t until the communists take over that things start to perk up a bit - in the form of dragon dancers and a slick military sequence.

From here on in the show does gather momentum, with two highlight numbers following in quick succession. I Still Believe and You Will Not Touch Him are the standout songs for me - expounding the aforementioned spine-tingling score. Despite not being blown away by Boublil and Schönberg’s music and lyrics, the singing is incredible across the board. Eva Nobelzada’s (Kim) stunning vocal performance venerated power and vulnerability in equal measure, and I particularly enjoyed her duets with Tamsin Carroll who plays Chris’s American wife Ellen.

The staging is clever, not least in the monumental helicopter scene depicted in Kim’s Nightmare. From the initial roar of propellers overhead, followed by shadowy projections before the great mass of chopper hovers over a darkened stage - it really is the best theatre spectacle I’ve seen in a long time. Add to the mix a revolving platform dividing panicked crowds begging to be evacuated, with the American military trying to pluck their men from the mayhem of Saigon, and you have a scene well-executed with all the drama and intensity to keep an audience on the edge of its seats.

It’s also a timely reminder that the events unfolding on stage bear witness to a period in history that’s perhaps lost on us Brits of a more recent generation. Miss Saigon originally opened 14 years after the Fall of Saigon when the consequences of the Vietnam War were still being felt. This revival production promises to share its story with another generation; the question is whether a new audience will embrace it almost 25 years later.  

Miss Saigon is currently booking at the Prince Edward Theatre until April 2015. Group travel organisers booking ten or more tickets are entitled to discounted rates, valid for Monday to Thursday evening performances and Thursday matinees.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

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