LES MISÉRABLES

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _27th AUG.

August 12, 2022

images © Johan Persson.

For a novel that has been in widespread circulation for 160 years, and spawned more stage and screen adaptations than even some Shakespeare, Christie and Brontë, it’s difficult to deny that it is the musical interpretation of Les Misérables that continues to be the most indelible crimson standard bearer for Victor Hugo’s tirelessly bleak melodrama. Sure, the occasional Christmas retelling by Auntie Beeb, or Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning Hollywood refit, will occasionally pull focus, but it’s truly on stage, in the now-seminal hold of Boublil and Schönberg’s big sing, where les misery truly loves company.

The quasi-historical story – which initially jumps about to such an extent that there’s even a rare plot summation to be found in the programme – plots its way through early 19th-Century France, chronicling the turbulent post-incarceration woes of prisoner Jean Valjean (Dean Chisnall, here). A brief pitstop here and a spot of exposition later, and eventually the core of Les Mis’ narrative meandering settles around the violence and bloodshed of the June Rebellion, which Valjean and adopted daughter Cosette (Paige Blankson) find themselves tangentially embroiled in.

For a show so steeped in the history of yesteryear, and based off of a novel that has been published across three different centuries, the iconic nature of its original, celebrated production became quite instantly historic, too. Now the second-longest running show in the West End (beaten only by Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap), it is a musical colossus so cherished and beloved by so many, that when it was announced in 2019 that the show was going to get something of a facelift and a restage to bring it in line with its revamped touring production, including ditching its signature revolving barricade, there was something akin to theatrical uproar.

Fast forwarding to 2022, the dust has settled, the restaging rebellion has abated, Cameron Mackintosh’ bogeyman status has seemingly been foisted upon a fellow theatre impresario, and the small matter of a global pandemic has been and gone to thrust all the hullabaloo into sharp relief. In this wake, Les Misérables has returned, not just to London, but indeed back out on another UK and Ireland tour, which now is even closer to its West End counterpart than ever before.

The Schönberg must Ann Go: This latest touring production of Les Mis represents an ongoing presence by talented Filipina singer-actress, Rachelle Ann Go, in Schönberg-Boublil classics. In addition to playing the role of ‘Fantine’ here, in the West End and internationally, she memorably portrayed the role of ‘Gigi’ in the 25th anniversary production of Miss Saigon in London (hover for photo, © Michael Le Poer). 

Pushing aside any arguments over the merit behind transplanting this version of the show onto London stages, experiencing it again is a bold reminder of why it ended up supplanting its predecessor. And whilst not every single element and refinement works flawlessly, this is a grand, audacious beast of a show, and for the most part goes toe-to-toe with its titanic soundtrack and book to provide a full-fat Les Mis experience that should absolutely be seen (and heard) to be believed.

Geoffrey Garrett and Matt Kinley’s ‘new’ staging is undoubtedly one of the stars of the show, here, matched formidably by Paule Constable’s monolithic lighting, which casts beams and columns of harsh spotlights from on high to render a group of factory workers as little more than insects, or harshly under-lights moments of conflict and tension between old adversaries. It all feels tremendously vertiginous, lending the dank Parisian backstreets, the slightly canted brothel houses and the imposing barricade a palpable sense of scale and impact. For a show that isn’t shy of big, booming moments of rousing choral harmony or intense shootouts and gunfire, it’s frequently awe-inspiring to see a touring production match it in the grandiosity of its set design and staging, too.

There are likely still purists out there who hold out for the nostalgia feed of the original staging, but it’s difficult to not see so much of what is presented here as being a more absorbing and occasionally eye-watering step forward.

The Schönberg must Ann Go: This latest touring production of Les Mis represents an ongoing presence by talented Filipina singer-actress, Rachelle Ann Go, in Schönberg-Boublil classics. In addition to playing the role of ‘Fantine’ here, in the West End and internationally, she memorably portrayed the role of ‘Gigi’ in the 25th anniversary production of Miss Saigon in London (tap for photo, © Michael Le Poer). 

Mercifully, this latest tour is no slouch when it comes to its cast, either. Crucial, given the exhaustive sing demanded of pretty much all of them, and it being almost entirely sung-through, to boot. Les Mis is a sizeable ensemble, and in the bravura, hair-raising glories of, say, ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ and ‘One Day More’, the impact of this glorious company collectively in full voice routinely delivers chills. Beat for beat, note for note, it’s a show positively stuffed with talent and brilliance at every turn.

“…routinely delivers chills. Beat for beat, note for note, it’s a show positively stuffed with talent and brilliance at every turn.”

Flourishes of character and invention have been injected throughout – even bit parts, such as George Arvidson’s lecherous Bamatabois, is here dialled up to eleven, and deliciously horrible to witness as a result. And even some of the show’s tentpole numbers benefit from some polish and attention, too, from resonant strings welcoming in the opening bars of ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’, and other flourishes that rub off some of the ‘80s residue of the OG treatment of the score. Again, for the most part, it all offers a soupçon of extra texture and depth.

True, there are some instances where more conspicuous modernity creeps in and doesn’t work quite so harmoniously. Whilst Finn Ross’ projection work generally complements and enhances proceedings, it can on occasional feel a touch too detached from the earthy, wood, splinters ’n all feel of the show around it. A visit to the sewers of Paris, a slightly awkwardly-choreographed ‘march on the spot as the background projection zooms out’, as well a new, slightly discombobulating take on a central character’s iconic demise. They all tiptoe a little precariously close to shattering the illusion, and feel ripped from a slight less assured production altogether.

For some, this will perhaps all be a little too much richness on top of an already fairly heavy cake. Les Mis is an over-the-top, decadent show, make no mistake. But, perhaps moreso now than ever, it is a production that seems to relish in its excesses, and if you’re going to be miserable, you may as well be downright moribund.

The principal players take this ethos and run with it. Chisnall is a terrific, proven Valjean, belting his way through some of the character’s big moments, whilst still retaining the necessary mix of vulnerability and internal conflict. Nic Greenshields makes for an imposing Javert in every sense, eliciting some of the biggest cheers of the night after a truly jaw-dropping take on the character’s signature solo, ‘Stars’. Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh offer much-needed levity and pitch-perfect physical comedy throughout as the scheming Thénardier and wife, respectively, whilst Rachelle Ann Go puts in a devastating turn as the doomed Fantine, delivering crystalline vocals and unbridled pain and passion early on in perhaps the show’s most famous number, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’.

“…perhaps moreso now than ever, it is a production that seems to relish in its excesses, and if you’re going to be miserable, you may as well be downright moribund.”

Similarly heart wrenching is the tremendously gifted Nathania Ong, whose kindly, spirited Éponine is amongst the finest the show has seen. She raises the roof with a searing ‘On My Own’, lost in unrequited love toward long-time friend, Marius. On whom it must be said, 1st cover Caleb Lagayan did a wonderful job understudying in the performance reviewed. Lagayan captured the optimism and animated vim of the young student with real passion and spriteliness, before tearing out the audience’s hearts for a soulful and shattering interpretation of grief and loss in the harrowing ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’. He’s ably met by Samuel Wyn-Morris, who cuts a dashing figure and is in fine voice as Marius’ friend, and revolutionary poster boy, Enjolras.

The Schönberg, it seems, must, and indeed will, go on. As it edges tantalising closer to its fortieth anniversary in 2025, there are few shows that can endure with such heft and impact as Les Misérables. Sure, it has ‘good bones’ – a book, soundtrack and roster of characters that many other shows would storm a barricade for – but these things are entirely dependent on execution.

And for every inevitable naysayer, and the ever unwelcome imposition of change for change’s sake, there are those who recognise that, to survive, all shows must eventually, inevitably evolve.

This could all very well be roping up an irony; barring a few bits of spit and polish here and there, this remains mostly the same touring production Mackintosh and co proudly unleashed upon the world back in 2009. It was reworking its revolution long before even London followed suit. Could another rework be on the cards?

Quite possibly, and if so, then quite honestly, bring it on. Pile on the misery, build the barricade even higher, throw in some extra strings and brass and dial the staging all the way up to 24601. Because with any luck, Les Mis is going nowhere, and if this latest, triumphant touring-de-force trip is anything to go by, there’ll be plenty to be joyously, jaw-droppingly and awe-inspiringly miserable about for decades to come.

Stunningly well executed and sumptuously performed, an unmissable, crimson flag-waving pinnacle of show-stoppery. A benchmark musical that continues to infuse evolution into its revolution. Being miserable never felt so joyous.

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