Some twenty-two years ago, Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Boublil and Schönberg’s Miss Saigon was the first West End musical I ever saw, during its triumphant 10 year run at Drury Lane. Inspired by a photograph showing the painful parting of a mother and daughter, as the girl leaves the war-infested Vietnam in 1975 to live with her American GI father, the writers made a connection with Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly and updated that story to the American Vietnam War. It’s a story of pain and sacrifice as young Vietnamese girl Kim and American GI Chris fall in love amidst the turmoil of a horrific war, are inevitably separated and tragically reunited. The huge original staging succeeded in placing their intimate love story as the emotional heart of the piece, but Laurence Connor’s exquisite reimagining of Miss Saigon, now playing at the Prince Edward Theatre, gives the whole story a new intensity in an era where its wartime setting is now more poignant and real than ever before.

The design effectively contrasts the garish sleazy nightlife of Dreamland (run by the wily Engineer), and the reality of what is happening outside during the cruel last days of the war. The two different worlds inhabited by Kim and Chris are placed close together, with a set made out of bamboo and corrugated iron that reveals the darkness and seediness of the situation, while also being able to create larger open spaces where needed. The lighting is dark and disturbing too, further revealing deep desperation and despair, and this whole concept enables the dramatic performances of the central characters to deepen. In the three central roles are actor-singers who not only understand their characters at every stage of their individual journeys, but give richly-textured performances of the highest calibre. 18 year old Eva Noblezada as Kim gives a performance of depth and maturity way beyond her tender years, as Kim journeys from virginal naivety to falling in love with Chris, and motherhood. There is a vulnerability yet determination about Noblezada’s Kim – she will stop at nothing to protect her son – and there is an inevitability about her fate. Alistair Brammer brings a brooding stillness to the complicated Chris, watching people and situations carefully and bringing subtlety and real emotional depth to the character. Jon Jon Briones’ Engineer is the purest, darkest evil, a tiny slip of a man who snakes his way in and out of places, desperate to achieve the American Dream whatever the cost to others.

I have always believed that Boublil and Schönberg’s sung-through score to Miss Saigon is infinitely superior to its much lauded predecessor, Les Miserables, and it soars in this production as never before, heightening the tension of the story and beautifully conveying the central romance. Brammer’s well-acted and paced ‘Why God Why’, and Brammer and Noblezada’s moving duets ‘Sun and Moon’ and ‘Last Night of the World’ are highlights of the first half of Act One. The company numbers – with a large ensemble playing a wide variety of characters in a company of 41 actors – are well done too, with the opening ‘The Heat Is On In Saigon’ and the military ‘Morning of the Dragon’ early standouts. Act Two offers further gems, in yet more contrasting styles – the music has so many different colours and tones in this show – with Briones a standout in the Engineer’s garish fantasy number ‘The American Dream’, set against a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. Richard Maltby Jnr’s original lyrics have been enhanced by Michael Mahler too, with less neat rhymes further conveying the imperfection of the setting. Tamsin Carroll’s (more mature) Ellen has a new song ‘Maybe’, reflecting her inner turmoil, as Ellen realises that she doesn’t stand a chance against Kim’s determination. Hugh Maynard’s big number as Chris’ friend John, ‘Bui Doi’, is well staged under a video screen showing moving footage of the children left behind in the camps, although Maynard needs to hold back on the riffing at the end to avoid taking the song out of its dramatic setting. And of course the famous helicopter scene is retained – Kim’s nightmare has never been more shellshockingly disturbing to watch – as she is separated from Chris amidst the horror of the war.

Miss Saigon is a show that needs to be both epic and intimate and Laurence Connor’s production succeeds on every level. Boublil and Schönberg’s musical is such a well-written, emotional and powerful drama, with its central themes of separation, sacrifice and hope, and it’s narrated vividly against the backdrop of a richly orchestrated score. I was caught up in the dramatic tension of it all so much that I was literally on the edge of my seat. Since seeing Miss Saigon for the first time all those years ago, I have seen many other shows, but rarely if ever have I been affected so deeply by any other musical. This new production further enhances an already breathtaking story and score and takes them to a whole new level. As Kim tragically utters, “How in one night have we come so far?”.