Cameron Mackintosh brings an impressive production of Les Miserables to The Festival Theatre for a sold out run (22nd January to 16th February) that makes it the biggest ticket sales and revenue grossing show in the theatre’s history. With an impressive footprint like that before the doors are even open, it is obvious that Les Miserables is far more than just a theatrical musical for many people. Over the 30 plus years since its first performance, both the original show and this updated production have been a global phenomenon with many translations, worldwide sell out tours and many millions of people seeing the show.
Just what is making this show so popular? That is a question I have asked myself often over the years as, although I am familiar with much of the music, and many of the songs, I am one of the few people it seems who until now had not seen the show, so tonight I was hoping to find some answers. Have I found them? Well, yes and no, as I am still trying to find that magical ingredient that is touching so many people, and perhaps that is a good thing as a good magician should never reveal their best tricks, and some things should always remain a mystery.
Claude-Michel Schönberg is one of my favourite composers and he has, like many composers before him, drawn upon European classical music sources as inspiration for some of his works, and Les Miserables is no exception here. As a musical, its inspiration clearly lies at times in the music of earlier classical works, and “Castle on A Cloud” (Jean-Philippe Rameau - Gavotte avec 6 variations) and “Bring Him Home” (Puccini "Humming Chorus" from Madame Butterfly) are two obvious examples. This to me does not matter though as classical composers also “adapted” many other existing works. Original French language lyrics for this show were by Alain Boublil. “Les Miserables” may at times be a bit of a “musical patchwork”, but it is a wonderful patchwork.
“Les Miserables” is at times a bit of an odd production for a few reasons. Its original source material is based on the 1862 novel of the same name by French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, and although the revolutionary themes are perhaps the ones that have struck the most chords with audiences over the years, the driving story here is really the salvation and redemption of Jean Valjean (after gifts of silver from The Bishop of Digne) and the failure to accept that salvation by the man who has hunted him down over the years, Inspector Javert. Here, on stage tonight, Killian Donnelly as ‘Jean Valjean’ with Nic Greenshields as ‘Javert’ make a powerful pair of protagonists and Nic Greenshields’ performance of “Stars” was one of the evening’s highlights. Killian Donnelly took us through the years as Jean Valjean in a solid performance that hit all the right notes along the way, and each well earned their applause from the audience.
For some reason, none of the other characters seem as fully developed as our two principal ones, and although Katie Hall as ‘Fantine’ gets one of the big songs of the show with "I Dreamed a Dream", it is a solid enough performance, but a little bit into the pop spectrum range at times. Tegan Bannister as ‘Eponine’ just never seems to get past the “lost love” stage in a love triangle with the grown up ‘Cosette’ (Bronwen Hanson) and Marius (Harry Apps), and that is a pity as her character is by far the most interesting of the three.
Our two Inn Keepers, Martin Ball as Thénardier and Sophie-Louise Dann as Madame Thénardier are a mystery to me though as they seem musically and visually at odds with the rest of the story’s atmosphere, and a “Cockney” couple in revolutionary France seems to me to be very out of place. At times, although well performed the duo did move into pantomime for me with their characters.
Very good performances tonight though from our young Cosette (Lexi Sheppard) and our street urchin boy Gavroche.(Charlie Hagan). Not forgetting Erin Kempton as a young Eponine
There are many fine songs here but, for me, the song from this show will always be "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" and out of all many well-presented scenes, the final one with the now old man that ‘Jean Valjean’ has become is my favourite.
At the end of the day though, Les Miserables is an enormous spectacle of a theatre production with money, care and attention so obviously lavished upon it at every stage of its story, and the power of this musical as a live production is simply something that you will never get from television or cinema. Here at the end of the show, was a standing ovation from the audience; nothing more needs to be said!
Review by Tom King