I doubt Miss Saigon would have been written today, or at least not in the way in which even this non-replica production, only made possible “by special arrangement with Cameron Mackintosh” (make of that what you will), has made alterations and adaptations. Parts of it are comically melodramatic: I just about managed to stop myself from laughing, although a lady in the row behind mine who was weeping with alarming regularity helped me to maintain a straight face. This relatively stripped-down version (relative, that is, to its previous West End incarnations) allows other elements of the show to shine brighter – the songs and the narrative. This cast performs the former brilliantly, and as for the latter, well, a stronger focus on the storyline only reveals how ridiculous some of it is. The Asian men are all horrible monsters who oppress the Asian women. As for the Americans, the ladies sing, “They are not nice, they’re mostly noise / They swear like men, they screw like boys”, but their allegedly emancipatory work means all that is not only tolerated but encouraged, as it provides income for those who sell their bodies to be solicited.
Repositioning ‘The Engineer’ (Joanna Ampil) as a woman goes some way to addressing the oversimplification that would otherwise have been presented, of any and all Asian women in the show lacking sophistication and initiative (however misplaced the latter turns out to be). But there’s no getting around the Engineer’s sleaziness, which still contrasts with John’s (Shane O’Riordan) by-the-book approach, complete with files and folders of paperwork all present and correct, which he sometimes carries around with him for good measure.
I saw a captioned performance – not intentionally: in the same week, there was a ‘relaxed performance’, an ‘audio described performance’ and a ‘British Sign Language performance’, so there had been a focus on assisting patrons who require such services. The captions were as accurate (I could count on one hand the errors that crept in) and as timely as I have ever seen them at the theatre, and it was a challenge to get all the lyrics in, particularly when characters were singing at speed, or during harmonies when different lyrics overlapped.
As for authentic representation, it isn’t to be found here, if only because to achieve authenticity, they’d have to have every single Vietnamese character portrayed by an actual Vietnamese person, and every single American character portrayed by an actual American. But what “they always sing at weddings” are now actual Vietnamese words, instead of what the Western writers overheard back in the day and transposed phonetically as best they could (but still gibberish): I only figured that out thanks to the captions. But anyway, Miss Saigon was never intended to be full of historical verisimilitude – it is, essentially, a musical rework and resetting of an opera.
This production has tried to consider the criticisms of the show, but it’s still a curious choice, and it still paints a portrait of Vietnamese people as weak and pathetic, desperate for a one-way ticket to the United States, rather than the defiant and determined people they were and are. Saigon, it appears, should have just been abandoned, if only there were enough planes and helicopters to whisk them away. Here, Chris (Christian Maynard), the American GI who bonks Kim (at the performance I attended, alternate Desmonda Cathabel) and fathers a child by her (but doesn’t find out until three years later because of a rushed evacuation after the fall (or the liberation) of Saigon in 1975, rapidly marking the end of the Vietnam War), and his wife Ellen (Shanay Holmes), are people of colour, softening the racial tensions which have even led to previous productions being picketed. But even this Chris muses, “I’m an American, how could I fail to do good?”, and part of me wanted to heckle, “Let me count the ways!”
But surely the Asians in the show, including musical director Chris Poon, wouldn’t be there unless they thought the show was worth doing? Perhaps not, and at face value, it’s not a bad production – speaking of the orchestra, a sizeable fifteen-strong group of musicians were a joy to listen to. Is that why Miss Saigon is back? The showtunes? ‘Last Night of the World’ – sometimes erroneously referred to as ‘Solo Saxophone’, in reference to its arguably most memorable lyric – was excellent, as was ‘Bui Doi’ at the start of Act Two, while ‘The American Dream’, the show’s eleven o’clock number, brought the house down.
Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre’s production of Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play claims to jump “through time, wriggling inside of and then exploding lifetimes of repeating Asian stereotypes,” and has already beaten this Sheffield revival to a London transfer, with a run from 18 September to 4 November 2023 at the Young Vic. If this version of Miss Saigon does make it down the M1 and into the Big Smoke, I’m fairly certain it’ll be jazzed up with enhanced lighting, set and props, and all the rest, as with the West End production of Sheffield musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Spoiler alert: there’s no helicopter. There’s the sound of one, and a small portion of the theatre’s ceiling opens up. There’s even the feel of one, with ‘wind’ blowing through the auditorium. Well, it’s not anywhere near as noisy or as windy as it would really have been, as anyone who has been near a helicopter taking off or landing will testify. But Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design, Mike Walker’s sound design and Ben Stones’ set design combine to produce something in the relevant scene remarkably convincing.
Cathabel’s Kim is very convincing as a young lover, stoic yet hopeful that eventually her and Chris can pick things up again from where they left them, and thankfully doesn’t overdo it in the big numbers, maximising poignancy over maximising volume. Did I enjoy the show? Yes. Did I join in the standing ovation at the end? Yes. It’s by no means perfect – the time-hopping narrative frankly started to piss me off – but I’ve also seen a lot worse.
Photo credit: Johan Persson