It is surprising that one of the most inspirational tales of the past 200 years should have been absent from stage and screen for so long. This situation, however, has now been rectified with Thom Southerland’s absorbing and moving new musical, The Braille Legacy (Charing Cross Theatre), which tells the epic tale of a young blind boy who wanted the same chance in life as those who see and ended up improving the lives of millions of blind people around the world.
Set in post-Napoleonic 19th century France where blind people are socially isolated and outcast, it centres on Louis Braille, a bright boy studying at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. Here visually impaired children are educated in history, geography, science, music and mathematics despite a flawed reading system that many find difficult to understand. Convinced of the transformative power that the written word can have for blind people, Louis becomes intent on inventing a better way, with the hope that he and all the other children can have the same chance in life as everyone else and be free and independent. But he soon discovers that people and things aren’t what they first seem. By sheer determination he stumbles upon something revolutionary: a simple idea, a genius invention, a legacy – a tactile system of communication in the form of a method of raised dots that can be read by touch – that would change the world forever.
But the government thought his invention was a waste of time and that blind youths would be better off learning a trade rather than learning to read. Braille was not accepted until long after Louis’s death from TB at the age of 43 and he was buried in the Pantheon in Paris on the centenary of his death.
This is a show that explores some universal themes, specifically those of power and discrimination, as well as difference, freedom, hope and love, whilst highlighting the struggles of an overlooked French hero and above all the triumph of human values over adversity. Based on the French book and with lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon, translated by Ranjit Bolt, and with a rousing musical score by Jean-Baptiste Saudray, the show emphasises the capacity the written word has to bring light and colour to unsighted people’s lives, and to hammer the point home, the children wear blindfolds to signify their blindness, which are removed when they are reading Braille.
The story itself is seamlessly told, with the aid of a rotating staircase structure set, but would have benefitted from being fleshed out further and developed in greater depth. However the music is beautifully integrated into the narrative and eschews mawkishness or sentimentality.
Although on the surface this is an unusual subject for a musical, the audience will quickly realise that there is no better way to tell this tale than through music. The cast of young actors are hard to fault, notably Jack Wolfe, a Mountview graduate with a sweet singing voice including a high baritone, as Louis Braille, Jason Broderick as Braille’s antagoniser turned buddy, and Tallulah Byrne as Catherine Lepage all of whom give remarkably polished performances.
Overall then, this show is a treat that blind, visually impaired and sighted people alike will enjoy.
The Braille Legacy
Showing at Charing Cross Theatre until 24 June 2017Last modified: April 28, 2017