Theatre review: Les Miserables - 25th anniversary show

Posted on: 29 September 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews the excellent 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables at the Barbican Theatre.

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I took my seat at the Barbican Theatre for the 25th anniversary production of Boubil & Schonberg’s Les Miserables. Would the musical have lost its sparkle and perhaps become a bit stale in the quarter of a century since I first saw it at the same theatre? I need not have worried, though, for the show is just as emotionally charged, if not more so, and indeed more realistically staged that the original production.

After 19 years on the chain gang for stealing bread to give his sister’s starving child, Jean Valjean finds the ticket-of-leave he must display condemns him to be an outcast. Only the Bishop of Digne treats him kindly and Valjean, embittered by years of hardship, repays him by stealing some silver. Valjean is caught and brought back by the police and is astonished when the Bishop lies to the police to save him. Valjean decides to start his life anew.

Eight years have passed and Valjean, having broken his parole and changed his name to Monsieur Madeleine, has become a factory owner and mayor. One of his workers, Fantine, has a secret illegitimate child. When the other women discover this they demand her dismissal.

Desperate for money to pay for medicines for her daughter, Fantine sells her locket, her hair, and then joins the whores in selling herself. Utterly degraded, she gets into a fight with a prospective customer and is about to be taken to prison by Javert, a police spy, when the ‘mayor’ arrives and demands she be taken to hospital instead.

The mayor then rescues a man pinned beneath a cart. Javert is reminded of the abnormal strength of convict 24601 Jean Valjean, who, he says, has just been recaptured. Valjean, unable to see an innocent man go to prison, confesses that he is prisoner 24601.

At the hospital Vajean promises the dying Fantine that he will find and look after his daughter Cosette, a promise he manages to fulfil. Javart, though, arrives to arrest him but Valjean escapes. However Javart is determined to track him down, no matter how long this may take.

This is a wonderful musical, epic in scale but intimate in nature, which is both exhilarating and deeply-moving - we really feel for the protagonist and those he befriends, while at the same time fearing for their fate. Themes of friendship, betrayal, greed, love, affection and sheer goodness in a world of cocial injustice are tackled in a totally believable and unsentimental way. The evocative sets, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, on whoe novel the show is based, uses film to create a strong sense of authenticity, particularly impressive in the scene where Valjean rescues the unconscious Marius, a young man who is in love with Cosette, and brings him to safety through the sewers.

Claude-Michel Schonberg’s marvellous score (with lyrics by Herbert Kretsmer) has lost none of its appeal and is used to advance the drama rather than serve as mere showstoppers as in so many musicals, with numbers such as I Dreamed A Dream, Who Am I?, Do You Hear The People Sing?, Bring Him Home and Empty Chairs at Empty Tables have already become classics.

Joint directors Laurence Connor and James Powell (the original BBC production was directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird) draw exemplary performances from their hugely talented cast. Particulaarlt impressive are John Owen-Jones, on excellent vocal and dramatic form, as Valjean, Earl Carpenter as his nemesis Javart, Madalena Alberto as Fantine, and Katie Hall as Cosette. An unrecognisable Gareth Gates is surprisingly good as Marius.

I can’t sing the praises too highly of this fast moving, totally involving anniversary production of a musical which I am sure will be around for another 25 years.

By Laurence Green

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