“Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?”
When I first started this blogging lark, I thought that what I wanted was to be ‘respected’ as a ‘serious’ theatregoer and whilst I’ve never been ashamed of being a huge fan of musical theatre amongst many other things, I’d always been uneasy about demonstrating that too much. But after great conversations with so many of my new friends in the online reviewing community, I’ve come to fully appreciate that integrity really does come from being truly honest about things that I see and the things that I love and this could not have been better illuminated than in the last two days: an obscure Sondheim revival at the Donmar and the umpteenth time of seeing Les Misérables, albeit in a new production and I can proudly say that it was Les Mis that came out as a clear winner for me despite what my inner snob may have wanted me to say!
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg adapted it for the stage in 1980, and it first played in London at the Barbican, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Trevor Nunn, transferring to the Palace and then the Queen’s Theatre where it is still running after 25 years. And to mark that 25th anniversary, Mackintosh conceived this touring version of the show, directed by Lawrence Connor and James Powell (a decision which sadly left Nunn’s nose out of joint) and after touring the country, it has now arrived back at its original home at the Barbican for 22 performances only.
I have seen this show so many times, I really have lost count: it has been a perennial favourite and one I’ve revisited every couple of years or so quite regularly with family and friends who share my feelings. I’ve never watched it with a properly critical eye though and it is a long time since I’ve paid for decent seats to see this show, usually picking up cheap ones from TKTS or the like and so I took the plunge here and it really was a novelty and a great pleasure to be so close to the action for once and to approach it with more of a critical mindset. Although I must say, it still rankles with me that seats that are normally £10 at the Barbican are £65 for this production and the best seats are £85. But that’s about my only gripe about the whole experience which was about as good as it gets for me: be warned, I go on a bit in this review!
The story follows the struggle of one man to be true to his instinctive kindness and sense of justice in the face of much opposition and the most troubling of times as France hurtles once again towards revolution. Jean Valjean vows to start his life anew after 19 years on the chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread, but his nemesis, the highly moral Inspector Javert continues to stalk him as Valjean adopts an orphan girl Cosette and is later swept up in the revolutionary fight as he is forced to help save the life of Marius, the man with whom she has fallen in love. It’s both an intimate and a grand story as it is set against the backdrop of everyday life with a huge swathe of supplementary characters adding vitality to every scene as we rip through pathos, tension, romance and tragedy in what really is quite a dark story for an alleged crowdpleaser.
The music, oh the music! With a live orchestra under Peter White’s musical direction and new arrangements and orchestrations bringing a brightness to these oh-so-familiar songs, (‘Master of the House’ became much more musically interesting than I’ve ever known it to be), it is easy to forget just how many top tunes there are in here which means the emotional wallop is consistently huge. As ‘Red and Black’ segues into the even more rousing ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’, it is hard not to jump up and join them on the barricades; likewise when the quietly beautiful ‘Drink With Me’ leads straight into Valjean’s ‘Bring Him Home’, sung to flawless perfection here by John Owen-Jones, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not be even slightly emotional. And if there’s a better song in musical theatre than ‘One Day More’, I gladly welcome your submissions!
The decision to completely revamp the staging through Matt Kinley’s new designs is really quite daring and the introduction of CGI projections, whilst potentially a horrendous mistake, is actually one of the most striking things about this show. Taking inspiration from Victor Hugo’s own paintings, a series of tableaux take us from place to place incredibly effectively, sometimes just suggesting a mood with swirling colours, at others times shaking up our perspectives and taking us right down into the sewers on an exhilarating chase.
Being released from the shackles of the revolving drum and its stale barricades of the traditional set has really allowed the design team to recreate the world of Les Mis in a way which clearly enables ease of transport, although it is still visually extremely impressive and does not look like a travelling set at all, but also refocuses the attention on key scenes which have often been overlooked. The notable of these to me was the death of Éponine which is a tearjerker at the best of times, but here with the cast slowly turning one by one as they realise what is happening and then eventually carry her body off with soldier’s honours plays with a new emotional honesty. But several of the iconic images have been retained so that a brilliant mesh of old and new here, the waving of the red flag, the stepping to ‘One Day More’, the ‘death light’ all remain to remind so many of us why we love this show so much.
It is impossible to pick between John Owen-Jones’ emotionally charged Valjean and Earl Carpenter’s brooding Javert, both are close to perfection in their roles and look as energised in their performances as ever. The hair and make-up team must be congratulated on the way they subtly but definitively age them both throughout the show, it is done so well and so very quickly too. There’s a great vocal performance from Jon Robyns (who will always be Princeton to me) as the single-minded and coolly charismatic student leader Enjolras but also with a brilliant little cameo as a gurning footman in the wedding scene and I just love the performer that Gareth Gates has grown up into, his Marius is nerdish but compassionate even in his lovesickness and brought a nice modern touch to his vocals.
As Éponine, Rosalind James’ gorgeous rich alto was stunning to hear, standing out beautifully in the group numbers and lending ‘On My Own’ a new soulful twist that really, to coin a much overused term, made the song her own and marked her as my favourite performer of the evening, though I imagine purists will be horrified. As the bawdy Thénardiers, Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot brought a nice comic touch but underlaid with their true exploitative nature, though I would steer clear of her when she’s got the cleaver in her hand, and will someone please think of the budgies…! The only very tiny disappointment was that Katie Hall’s Cosette was as traditional as they come, there seemed to be no concession to the refresh in her performance which made it stand out a little for the wrong reason, but this was but a tiny bugbear.
Just finally, one of the things I truly love about this show is that despite its huge cast of characters, so many of them are given a chance to shine, their own classic songs to sing (Fantine is barely on the stage for half an hour but Madalena Alberto still manages to squeeze in ‘I Dreamed A Dream’) and even the minor characters are granted verses in the ensemble numbers so that it is easy to see just how talented every single member of the cast really is. Amongst those that stood out for me here were Adam Linstead’s weary and sardonic Grantaire and David Lawrence’s compassionate bishop.
I honestly think this is the kind of production that could actually change people’s minds about this show. It was rapturously received by the first night audience at the Barbican, clearly appreciative of the history in its return to this venue, but it really did remind me how strong a piece of theatre it is. Blending serious moral questions with a genuine emotionality and a truly artistic aesthetic, this production places a marker for popular theatre, so often derided, to aspire to. So much of my pleasure came from seeing an old friend receive the most sympathetic and beautiful of makeovers, but it feels so fresh here with its completely new lease of life that I’m sure it will wow newcomers too, so I urge you to join the crusade, stand with me and just revel in the glory of musical theatre at its utmost best.