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Music at war with itself: The hugely popular Miss Saigon is back with its terrible songs, while an open-air Arthur Miller revival suffers from a sluggish start: Miss Saigon Prince Edward, London W1; until 25 April 2015 All My Sons Regent's Park Open Air, London NW1; until 7 June

May 25, 2014

Susannah Clapp

Not so much a musical as an applausathon. Here is a famous duet: much clapping. Here is a swanky American car: whoops of approval. Here is the celebrated helicopter: roars of approbation. Miss Saigon returns to the London stage 15 years after Nicholas Hytner's acclaimed production closed after more than 4,000 performances. The show has already set a new box office record, with takings of pounds 4.4m the day booking opened.

What is the secret of its new success? Partly the sheer fame of its machinery. Partly the fact that music and words are by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who made many people happy with Les Miserables. Just possibly - though this may be bien pensant - it is due to a post-Iraq relish for the subject matter. Based on Madame Butterfly, centring on the doomed love-affair between a Vietnamese prostitute and a US marine, Miss Saigon does not aim to make audiences think well of American intervention in foreign countries.

Those who shell out for this production will get some rewards. Eighteen-year-old Eva Noblezada is a lovely full-voiced find as Miss Saigon. Her ex-husband and stalker is sung with sonorous intensity by Kwang-Ho Hong. Jon Jon Briones is lively as the French-Vietnamese pimp who was first played (wish I'd seen him) by Jonathan Pryce, with prosthetic eyes that are now inadmissible but with a Fagin sinuousness, judging by the clips on YouTube, that will never cease to be a marvel. There is a clever number in which the longing and sadness of two women looking at the same man is interwoven. And a bright piece of team dancing. Apart from the ribbons, the choreography is almost entirely absent. There are no good strong tunes. The lyrics are so entirely predictable that they are a disgrace. In what is supposed to be a visual age we may have given up on the idea of Cole Porter dexterity but do we really have to put up with "boy/joy", and tick the rhymes off on our fingers?

More fundamentally, this is a show that flaunts the notion of liberal sympathies while cruising on commerce. The opening scene, set in a brothel, seems to deplore the idea of fleshpots, yet shows every girl not as worn down but as gorgeous. Lament, which is the default mode of this musical, is so raucously rendered that it sounds triumphant. Underlit (did no one have lights in Saigon?) and blaring (can no one in America tone down their voice?), this is a beautiful, squalid thing: celebration masquerading as tragedy. No wonder the clapping did not come from me.

This has been the week for shooting at the American dream. Arthur Miller never had much difficulty at going straight at it. His 1947 play All My Sons suggests a theme of family loyalty; its plot urges Americans to think more publicly.

The story, rooted in prosperous suburbia, with good neighbours determined that pleasant behaviour must betoken fine principles, has a terrible slow-burn inevitability, with tragedy wrapped in secrets. A man lets his friend and colleague take the rap for sending out faulty aircraft parts during the war; men die; the story slowly comes home to roost.

The slowness is a difficulty. Miller's first half is almost entirely a set-up for the eventual payoff. Timothy Sheader's production does not overcome this: the first half is on the tame side - and not helped by some stiff acting. Only Brid Brennan, still and imposing, really brings together contemporary America and the allusion to classical Greek tragedy that underlies so many of Miller's plays. As the mother who half-knows many things and refuses to acknowledge them, she suggests both monstrous complicity and utter vulnerability. Her containment is lethal.

Sheader admires Miller more than any other 20th-century playwright. His production of The Crucible - in which a ring of Puritan maids enclosed the action, dipping and rising as if they were flames - was a critical moment in his artistic directorship of the Open Air Theatre. It confirmed a shift in the repertoire and a radical, imaginative use of the space. Audiences can still go to Regent's Park for twinkle and spangle and dapple, for sweet scents and dripping discomfort, for charm and gaiety and Midsummer Night's Dream. Yet the cocktail now has a twist of lemon in it. It is, as Sheader puts it, a theatre where an audience used to leaning back in their seats also lean forward.


Miss Saigon: 'So raucously rendered that it sounds triumphant.'

Photograph by Tristram Kenton

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Source: Observer (UK)

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