For the blind, there is no need to have colour in the world. Thom Southerland’s production of The Braille Legacy is devoid of such frivolities – a black and white revolving set by Tim Shortall; monochrome costumes by Jonathan Lipman; harsh, exposing cold white spotlights in Tim Lutkin’s lighting design.
Every so often there is a hint of something more warming, as Louis Braille (Jack Wolfe) escapes into his imagination; a way to distract himself or illuminate a forthcoming idea. But Southerland seems to have extended the premise of a cold, colourless world too far – this is a production that lacks enough empathy and warmth from its characters too. A storyline that glosses over the atrocities of the day in favour of pursuing the textured dots on a page, Sébastien Lancrenon writes with a tunnel vision, himself blinded to the bigger picture.
The premise itself is fascinating, the growing up of blind children in a world that is harsh enough even for those with sight. Louis (Wolfe) and his childhood friends, including enemy-turned-comrade Gabriel (Jason Broderick), live and study at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth under the tender guidance of Doctor Pignier (Jérôme Pradon). In this inept Lionel Bart homage, the children are treated as invalids and orphans in substandard conditions, whipped into shape by the fearsome teacher Monsieur Dufau (Ashley Stillburn).
With no love lost between the two male educators, there bares more than a little resemblance to Boublil’s legendary hero-villain duo of Valjean and Javert. A Parliament that is looking to reduce funds wherever possible; a matron that only looks to protect the welfare of the children; a captain whose ‘night writing’ system may be of use in helping the children read. The stage is set for a journey of self-discovery, perseverance against the odds, and overcoming struggle at every turn.
Jean-Baptiste Saudray’s music is the saving grace in The Braille Legacy, adding much need complexity and colour to a script that is otherwise scant and threadbare. The orchestration is rich, the purple colourings of a string section digging all emotion possible out of the music to compensate for a stilted set of stage performances.
The main musical theme is announced and established throughout the show, with numbers such as ‘In These Words I See’ and ‘Louis’ Research’ incorporating these motifs elegantly and with colour. But there are clashing tones and hues even in this overall successful aspect of the show – ‘We’re Friends’ and ‘Liberté, Ègalité, Fraternité’ cross the line into saccharine and tacky; ‘Big and Small’ unsuccessfully musically resolves and, in many ways, sets the scene for the train wreck that is Act Two.
For all the best intentions of Southerland to slow this imminent disaster down, the second half careers headlong into a finale that is neither expected, wanted, nor satisfying. Lancrenon’s script attempts to gloss over key character development in an effort to keep the show at two hours long, and as such is wildly imbalanced.
After a first half that merrily rolls along, the audience are subjected to a 30-minute acceleration that covers the completion of the Braille system, the abduction of and experimentation on the afflicted children, two cases of overthrowing management at the school and a recitative obituary into the final 30 years of the central character’s life. All that is exhausting to type, let alone to watch.
The Braille Legacy is a flawed show that is nevertheless entered into with gusto and an attempt by the actors to make the best of a bad situation. Pignier (Pradon) and Madame Demézière (Ceili O’Connor) are impassioned singers seeking a career in Les Misérables, but complement the richness of Saudray’s score with impact and impetus.
In his professional debut, Braille (Wolfe) is earnest and studious, with a controlled vocal and a strong, emotional tone. But the production is flawed at its core and the actors cannot compensate for a story that lacks impact, direction, or pace. Without the insights needed into the characters, they are doomed to come across as shallow, withdrawn, and emotionally flat; the perfect balance to a show that is actively stripping itself of colour.
The Braille Legacy is playing Charing Cross Theatre until 24 June.