Miss Saigon – Review – Sheffield Crucible

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By Helen Johnston, July 2023

There are sometimes moments during a stage production which are done so incredibly well you know they will linger in the memory for a long time to come.

The airlifting of American GI Chris from war-torn Vietnam watched by his Vietnamese lover Kim, arms outstretched, is one of them.

It truly felt like an army helicopter had landed on the roof of the Crucible as Chris (Christian Maynard) clung to a rope ladder high above the stage, the wind created by the noisy whirring blades blowing across the audience, powerful lights shining down on the drama happening below.

We watched as Chris disappeared into the roof, as though actually being carried off into the sky. While Kim, amid a crowd of Vietnamese people pleading in vain to be airlifted too, were abandoned to their fate.

The year was 1975 and this was the fall of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital overcome by the North Vietnamese army, effectively ending the 20-year-long war between the two halves of the country.

America’s ill-fated involvement has been well documented and resulted in more than 58,000 US casualties. A number which pales in comparison to the South Vietnamese people they were supporting, whose losses are estimated at up to 250,000.

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“Glorious dream sequence”

Jessica Lee is magnificent as Kim, who ends up as a sex worker in Saigon after the death of her parents. Lee (who can also be seen in the new Sheffield-based Full Monty series on Disney Plus) gives an unflinching performance as the woman who never loses faith in Chris and ultimately pays a high price for love. Her powerful voice conveys a range of emotions as events take her from the highs of new love to the depths of despair.

Lee is matched in vocals by Joanna Ampil as The Engineer, the tattoo-ed and fearless madam who runs the brothel where Kim ends up working. She knows what she wants – a one-way ticket to America – and she’ll stop at nothing to get it.

Her larger-than-life character brings some levity to the show, her sweary wise-cracking songs allowing for a few laughs amidst what is essentially a heart-breaking tale.

The scene where Ampil sings of the American dream is stunning. As she transforms into Marilyn Monroe, she is surrounded by strutting dancers clad in giant US dollars, money fluttering down around her and men lifting her aloft. A glorious dream sequence which ends, as so many dreams do, to an awakening of harsh reality.

Miss Saigon first opened in London’s West End in 1989 and has not been without controversy, with one theatre company withdrawing its own production from the Crucible this summer in protest at the way it believes the musical reinforces damaging tropes and racism in the way it portrays Vietnamese people. However, by using a company of mainly East and Southeast Asian actors, this re-telling aims to bring a new perspective.

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“Beautifully choreographed”

I found the Vietnamese characters to be far more engaging and powerful than the American ones. Ampil and Lee play the kind of strong women you’d want around you in a time of crisis, while the GIs were shown to be weak and mistakenly arrogant in the way they treated the people they were supposed to be defending.

Maynard as Chris shows how the Vietnam war had a crippling effect on soldiers who struggled to cope with what they had experienced when they returned home. Drafted into a war they couldn’t win, their lives forever tainted by a conflict which many of their fellow Americans didn’t support.

The scene where Kim and The Engineer join other Vietnamese people on a boat in a desperate bid to escape the new Communist regime and get to America is a stark reminder of what we’re seeing in our own part of the world now. It’s beautifully choreographed, while still providing a hard-hitting message as people cling to the sides of the overloaded vessel.

A standing ovation and thunderous applause from an appreciative audience were well-earned by this hardworking company of talented actors. This isn’t a musical which provides tunes to hum along to, but its message will stay with you much longer.

Miss Saigon is, ultimately, a compelling reminder of the tragic consequences when ordinary people get caught up in big world events.

‘Miss Saigon’ is at Sheffield Crucible until 19th August 2023
images: Johan Persson


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