(Leicester’s very modern theatre, The Curve, is currently playing host to Miss Saigon)
The very first time that I saw Miss Saigon, the musical by Boubil and Schönberg, (who are also the writers of Les Misérables), I was absolutely bowled over. It was back in 1989, and we went to London to see it just a week or two after it opened. My memories of that day were of the helicopter – everyone who has seen it cannot fail to remember the helicopter – but perhaps more importantly the wonderful music and very emotive story were imprinted on my mind. I remember also a group of Americans who were in the theatre for the first act, but did not reappear for the second act. Apparently, the memories of the Vietnam War, in which this musical is set, were too raw, understandably they were not yet able to face a re-enactment of such horrifying events from their recent past. America found it difficult to put the war behind it, it worried for its veterans, the peace movement and the draft dodgers were subjects still on their minds fourteen years after the war ended. Twenty eight years on from its opening in London, and the events portrayed on the stage still send a shudder down the spine, and bring more than tear to the eye, but it is a story that needs to be told.
Since that first time that I saw the show until last Saturday when I saw it again, I think I have seen the show about eight times, and I have never failed to be moved. It tells the story of the complicated relationship between an American Marine, Chris, and a Vietnamese girl, Kim, who fall in love in the last days before the fall of Saigon to the Communists. Chris, along with all Americans, has to leave, but is unable to take Kim with him. Some years later through a charity set up to look after Vietnamese orphans, Chris and his new wife discover that Chris is the father of Kim’s child. The ending is tragic, and if you know the story of Madame Butterfly, then I need not explain the ending, indeed I don’t want to spoil it if you have never seen the show.
Saturday evening’s performance was the opening night of the U.K. tour in Leicester, and the show has lost none of its power, its emotion or its raunchiness. The central character of The Engineer was brilliantly portrayed by Red Conception, and Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim, were superb as the lovers Chris and Kim. The staging is very cleverly done, it is slick, fast moving, colourful and very realistic. That helicopter that everyone talks about, you actually feel it passing above you through the auditorium, and then you see it landing on stage as the last of the Americans and the Ambassador board it, leaving behind those who were hopeful of escape to freedom, escape from the Viet Cong.
There are some lovely ballads in the musical score, as well as some rousing military music, but my favourite song has to the song about the orphaned Vietnamese children, Bui Doi, which translates as The Dust of Life, those ever present red haired, blond and freckled children of Vietnamese mothers, usually prostitutes, and American fathers. These children are a source of shame and guilt for Americans, but a central theme of Miss Saigon.
After its run in Leicester, the shows moves around the U.K. and Ireland, playing in Birmingham, Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton, Manchester, Bristol and Plymouth. It really is unmissable.