14th November, 2018
“Who am I?”
Les Misérables is arguably the kingpin in producer Cameron Mackintosh’s career. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s and Alain Boublil’s musical, based on Victor Hugo’s novel (1862), has had a long history: Paris in 1980; Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning movie in 2012; and Trevor Nunn’s and John Caird’s RSC production which opened in 1985 and is still running at the Queen’s Theatre in the West End. Now, Laurence Connor and James Powell’s new production (seen on Broadway a few years ago) gives Les Mis a fresh look which will assure its longevity.
Matt Kinley’s design is perhaps the most startling change from the London version: the famous turntable is gone but a stunning series of projections keep the action fluid and add a cinematic layer. Kinley has designed these (expertly realised by 59 Productions) based on Victor Hugo’s original paintings, paying tribute to the original material, and adding authenticity and character. The move underground into the sewers of Paris is particular effective. Kinley’s design also gives Connor and Powell the opportunity and resources to reimagine some of the musical’s most iconic moments to create those of their own. Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt’s musical staging, Kinley’s set, Paule Constable’s lighting and John Cameron’s original orchestrations come together to make multiple spectacular moments. For instance, Javert’s death is uber-theatrical; the barricade scenes are excellently choreographed (and appear to be as much of the mechanical marvel as the original); and the use of candles scattered around the stage in Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is an effective touch.
But some of the most effective moments are those where Connor and Powell excellent let individual characters’ stories to shine through all the impressive set pieces. They’ve also assembled a first rate cast. Killian Donnelly brings all his experience to Jean Valjean, allowing us to follow and invest in every stage of his story: from convict, to run-away, to mayor, to elderly man. It’s a story of retribution, rehabilitation, love and cruelty. Opposite him, Nic Greenshields’ Javert lets us feel for his piety and commitment to duty. Will Richardson is notable as Enjolras, leading a young revolution with hair flicking and trill-singing naivety and gallantry, leading up to his memorable final moments. This subplot is sometimes easy to forget, but he and his fellow fighters show the bravery, hope and perhaps foolishness of their cause. Martin Ball and Sophie-Louse Dann provide great comic relief as the Thénardiers. Tegan Bannister’s Eponine is another stand-out performer. She shows her love and the character’s ‘street smart’, singing a powerful ‘On My Own’. The ensemble are all committed to their roles and this show but I should give mention to former Curve company member Mary-Jean Caldwell; having seen her shine in community productions such as Oliver! and Sweeney Todd it's lovely to see her successful move into professional theatre.
The score is a masterpiece, living up to the epic proportions set by Hugo, with rousing ballads made up of sweeping strings, and pummelling percussion to keep the stakes high and story moving. And like all great musicals, perhaps even more so, it tackles immense themes of the human condition and explores these through fully-realised characters.This is a superlative production which I’m sure will be seen in London itself one day. Popular theatre at its best.