“Liberté, égalité, fraternité”
The uninitiated might take the existence of braille for granted but Sébastien Lancrenon and Jean-Baptiste Saudray’s The Braille Legacy dramatises the fascinating and moving true story behind its invention. Translated by Ranjit Bolt, the musical slots neatly into Thom Southerland’s takeover of the Charing Cross Theatre and supported as it is by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, it makes for an interesting piece.
Blinded in a childhood accident, Louis Braille’s keen intelligence saw him ruffle feathers at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth where he resided, mainly because prevailing societal attitudes considered the blind to be untrainable. Frustrated by the limits of the opportunities open to him and his schoolmates, he began to develop the tactile code which would unlock the key to reading text – it would be, however, a far from simple journey.
Saudray’s score is largely very appealing, passages of real beauty in its tumbling arpeggios and soaring strings and moments of melodic grace too, with its interesting choral textures. It is also very dramatic, reaching just a little too often for rousing orchestral finales for songs that don’t necessarily need it. And though Toby Higgins’ musical direction is strong, this can sometime overwhelm the relative intimacy of this theatre (I saw a late preview, so maybe this has been addressed a bit).
What pulls the show back is the strength of its leading performances. A gorgeous vocal from stage debutant Jack Wolfe makes his Braille a hugely empathetic figure, full of youthful confidence in his ability and frustration at the horrendous prejudice faced by the blind. Jason Broderick matches well with him as his frenemy Gabriel and there’s lovely work too from Ceili O’Connor (surely one to watch for the future) as the kindly matron, Ashley Stillburn’s dastardly Dufau, and Jérôme Pradon’s benevolent charm as Doctor Pignier.
Visually, Jonathan Lipman’s costumes provide an elegant solution to the portrayal of a school for the blind with blindfolds of black gauze, their intermittent removal proving a powerful metaphor, and Lee Proud’s choreography is well deployed. Tim Shortall’s revolving cube of a set is an odd choice though, functional rather than evocative of the period. And if there is the occasional lyrical clunkiness, the direct address of the finale pays respectful tribute to the enduring success of Braille’s achievements.