Les Misérables

Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer

Barbican Theatre

(2010)

Review by Philip Fisher

At the Barbican 25 years ago, in association with Cameron Mackintosh, the Royal Shakespeare Company followed up on the Trevor Nunn/John Caird stage adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby with the equally ambitious Les Misérables created by the same pairing.

The critics were lukewarm in their response but audiences showed more enthusiasm and a global legend was born.

To celebrate the Silver Jubilee, as well as a blockbuster version for two nights at The O2, the in situ London production has been joined by a brand new version that captivated a glittery, first night audience and after three thrilling hours brought them to their feet as one, following the death of Jean Valjean.

Victor Hugo's epic novel is one of the greatest ever written and while the stage adaptation must inevitably lose much of the depth and richness, it honourably maintains the spirit of the original.

This is a tale that effortlessly intertwines love and hate with war, politics and social commentary during the years after the fall of Napoleon when France was one long revolution and the barricades seemingly filled every street.

The main story follows the lifelong opposition between an innately good man, Valjean, and one steeped in evil, Javert. The irony is that our hero is an ex-con who spent 19 years on the chain gang, then robbed a priest before finding his soul. His pursuer over decades is a policeman whose heart has frozen over so that his only remaining motivation is vengeance.

The new production of Les Misérables features a marvellous mix of elements, almost all adding to an overall impact that hardly lets up during those three hours, that fly by in a seeming twinkle, so gripping is the combination of ingredients put together by Mackintosh and his new co-directors, Laurence Connor and James Powell.

What has made the show, now known almost universally as Les Miz, such a success is the melding of fantastic characterisation, a cleverly composed text and both music and visual effects that are almost literally unforgettable.

The story opens with the pairing of Les Miz veterans, John Owen-Jones and Earl Carpenter playing Valjean and Javert fighting their first battle of many, the former a prisoner, the latter his guard.

After seeing the light, Valjean watches Madalena Alberto's sickly, wronged Fantine die a horrible death and adopts her little daughter Cosette.

This is a cue for the entrance of two of the evening's unsung, singing heroes, Ashley Artus and Lynne Willmot playing the little girl's deeply unpleasant guardians the Thénardiers. They are pantomime figures who jauntily lead the cast in the catchy Master of the House reprised later as Beggar at the Waltz.

From then on, Valjean must protect the growing girl, played as an adult by Katie Hall, while being tracked down by his nemesis.

The chase rarely lets up, at least in the musical version, so that whenever Javert seems to have gone forever, he reappears, most memorably behind the barricades.

Most of the evening's highlights occur in these scenes. To start with, they look fantastic, low lighting and vast quantities of dry ice creating memorable images drawn straight from the artists of the period such as David and Delacroix. It has to be said that the limited use of computer graphics based on Hugo's own drawings adds little, other than when the action moves into the Parisian sewers.

The music also gets truly rousing as an excellent orchestra under musical director Peter White moves into overdrive. It does help to have a mix of big anthems, romantic ballads and musical standards to show off their talents. They and the cast should be delighted with songs such as Do You Hear the People Sing?, Bring Him Home, One Day More and the popular favourite, I Dreamed a Dream.

This is also the opportunity for several of the best performers to strut their stuff with the sweet-voiced Rosalind James truly moving playing the selfless, if sluttish, Éponine and tiny Toby Prynne stealing every scene in which he appears as brave, martyred Gavroche.

In the background, a love story develops between Cosette and pop star Gareth Gates looking and sounding pretty good as Marius.

The evening builds to a bittersweet denouement in which the battle between the now old men is resolved and the next generation, or what is left of it after the street fighting, begins to look forwards.

Les Misérables looks set to delight another generation both in this new, re-imagined incarnation and the much loved version still playing on Shaftesbury Avenue. It remains one of the best musicals of recent times and there has to be every chance that the current crop of critics looks far more favourably on this rousing night out than their predecessors.