This weekend, by chance, marked the showing on British television of the final episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s mighty documentary on the Vietnam War. The story combines huge historic drama – the final panic at the fall of Saigon, the huge helicopters clattering in to lift the last few US troops from the roof of the American Embassy – with an immense sense of personal tragedy. And it’s because it so perfectly captures those qualities of the moment in which it is set that Cameron Mackintosh’s new 2014 production of Boublil and Schonberg’s smash-hit 1989 show emerges as such a brilliant musical for our time, full of resonances for a new age of war and displacement, and of questioning about the exploitative sexual relationships that come with male power, whether military, political or economic.
Miss Saigon, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh *****
Miss Saigon is based on the story of Puccini’s 1903 opera Madam Butterfly; and if this production, directed by Laurence Connor, makes that connection seem both clear and profound, it’s partly because of Sooha Kim’s soul-stoppingly powerful and poignant performance as Kim, the Saigon bar-girl whose passionate romance with US soldier Chris ends in tragedy.
Yet with almost 30 dancer-singer-performers on stage, Ashley Gilmour singing superbly as Chris, this Miss Saigon is also a breathtakingly spectacular and gripping piece of ensemble theatre, a great sung-through drama, that not only reminds us of the huge human cost of imperialism and war, but also invites us to question our own complicity in leering at the gyrating bar-girls of the early scenes, before the story reminds us that that industry, too, has a human cost.
*Until 17 February