The story of Louis Braille – the blind French boy who invented the braille alphabet in 1824 when he was only 15 – is an inspiring one, and musicals have certainly been based on stranger source material. And director Thom Southerland has a track record of slightly unlikely hits such as Titanic and Grey Gardens, so you’d hope for a vibrant telling. But this dire musical entirely fails to do the man justice.
The plot – of Braille’s personal hunger for learning, twinned with the run-down Royal Institute for Blind Youth’s funding struggles (people in nineteenth-century Paris didn’t like blind kids at all, it seems) – is inflated at every turn to make it more melodramatic, with cartoon villains and anguished heroes. There’s also a pretty mad child-murdering subplot, which seems to have been added to up the drama; given that the whole thing is based on real people and a real institute, this is surely appalling taste.
It’s all rather sub-Les Mis. Jean-Baptiste Saudray’s manipulatively schmaltzy music is heavy on the strings and sweeps over the actors as they give vast, anguished gestures, deliver baldly declamatory lines about courage and following dreams, or gnash their teeth enough that the scenery would certainly be chewed up, if it could stand it. Tim Shortall’s set, a house of spindly white wood and French doors, wobbles alarmingly throughout; it also spins, and takes up most of the stage, cramping the action and hampering the story.
There is sweet, energetic work from a cast of six children, blindfolded for much of the show. Jack Wolfe makes an impressive professional stage debut given the leaden, cliché-riddled writing of Sébastien Lancrenon’s book, flatly translated from the French by Ranjit Bolt; he has a winning wilfulness and lovely voice. But the rest of the cast fail to breathe any life into the wooden writing and cheesy songs.
Although the show is supported by the RNIB, there are no blind or partially sighted members of the cast or creative team, which is feeble, frankly (there are also only two audio-described performances in the whole run). Different, not disabled, is basically the final, enlightened message of The Braille Legacy. So why on earth did this not extend to those involved in telling the story?