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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Les Miserables 
Palace Theatre 1986-2004; Queen's Theatre (renamed Sondheim Theatre 2020) 2004-

JANUARY 2020: Using the refurbishment of the former Queen's Theatre – now the Stephen Sondheim – as an opportunity, producer Cameron Mackintosh offers a new 'for the 21st Century' production of the 35-year-old Les Miserables.

Those who have seen the show before (and who hasn't?) will spot some differences, but they and any new audiences will find the new version as melodic, dramatic and theatrically satisfying as the old.

This production, re-directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell and designed by Matt Kinley, is largely based on the version that has been touring since 2009, and it does have a stripped-down feel to it.

Most of the show is done on a bare or almost-bare stage – don't worry, the battlements are still there – and in semi-darkness, with scene changes effected by creative use of spotlights (lighting designer Paule Constable) to define new settings.

This is particularly effective in the first act finale, with the seven or eight individuals contributing their versions of One Day More clearly separated and combined by shifts in lighting.

Musically it is clear that the cast have all been directed to listen to the words they are singing and to act them, leading to performances all around that rank meaning and drama over mere melodic prettiness.

Those who know the score from previous productions or recordings will constantly be surprised, almost always happily, by new line readings or emphases that make the familiar songs seem fresh and moving.

(Something that bothered me in the past – scroll down for an older review – was that too many of the songs sounded like lead-ins to fuller melodies that never arrived. But I guess that 35 years of hearing them have established the songs in our consciousness so I can now hear them as full and self-contained pieces.)

The cast is made up almost entirely of Les Miz veterans, from one production, concert or film or another. As Jean Valjean Jon Robyns has a deeper and darker voice than some of his predecessors, with less dependence on the higher range, even in Bring Him Home, contributing to the songs' sounding fresh and new.

Bradley Jaden never quite captures Javert's haunted and obsessive side, and thus doesn't register strongly enough either as villain or tragic figure. As is often the case in musicals, the young lovers are relatively colourless, and I can't believe you'd miss much if you encountered the understudies to Lily Kerhoas and Harry Apps.

Ian Hughes brings an inventive and irresistible music-hall spirit to Thenardier, and though Master Of The House still feels like it has wandered in from some other musical, it injects much-needed light and energy to the dark first act.

But the real star-is-born discovery of this production is Shan Ako as Eponine, whose On My Own, even more than Bring Him Home, is the show-stopping dramatic high point of the evening.

Oh, I have my cavils. That bare stage does begin to look a little penny-pinching from time to time. And, without being too literalist, the whole point of Marius's survivor-guilt song Empty Chairs At Empty Tables is that he's in the bar where his friends used to hang out, and moving it to a barely-suggested graveyard just doesn't have the same effect.

Anyway, Les Miz is back, it's good, it's different enough to be worth seeing again, and it will undoubtedly run another 35 years.

Gerald Berkowitz



NOVEMBER 2001: We didn't post a review of this long-running musical earlier, partly because we assumed everyone in the world had already seen it, but mainly because we ourselves hadn't seen it since its opening 15 years ago and didn't remember much except that we hadn't particularly liked it. So the opportunity to revisit it was a pleasant and surprising experience.

The show is good. Either it has gotten better in 16 years or our taste has improved. (Actually, it may be a bit of both. Producer Cameron Mackintosh famously closed the show down for a month in 1997 and again in 2004 to reconceive and revitalise it, and there's no doubt that the standards of each new cast are kept high.) 

Of the whole genre of semi-operatic costume musicals that it helped spawn - think Martin Guerre, La Cava, Notre Dame, Napoleon, etc - this is by far one of the best, and well worthy of its long run.

For the uninitiated, the French musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, adapted by directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, is based on Victor Hugo's sprawling novel about an ex-convict who reforms and becomes something of a saint. 

He befriends a dying prostitute and promises to raise her daughter, rescues the girl from her abusive foster family, gets involved in one of Paris's regularly-scheduled revolutions, saves the life of his adopted daughter's lover and dies a blessed man, in spite of being hounded through most of his life by a vindictive policeman.

The next time you're at a West End musical, play this little game. Check the program's cast biographies and I'm willing to bet that at least half of them will at some time have been in some production somewhere of Les Miserables. 

That's true even of this cast, several of whom bring the experience of other roles or other productions to this one. If Hans-Peter Janssens doesn't quite have the physical and moral authority I would hope for in Jean Valjean, he does sing beautifully, and his rendition of "Bring Him Home" is the most moving I've heard. 

As Marius, Jody Crosier is stuck with a part that is almost faceless pretty-boy, but a powerful rendition of his survivor-guilt song "Empty Chairs" gives the underwritten character a lot of depth.

The women are given less opportunity to register - it's a pretty good rule of thumb in this show that any attractive young character who has a solo is going to die soon - and neither Grania Renihan's Fantine nor Philippa Healey's Cosette makes much of an impression. 

Katie Leeming as Eponine is another matter: this understudy, who I hope will get a full-time chance at the role soon, gives a real star-making performance of high energy and personality. Finally, neither Michael McCarthy's Javert nor Tony Timberlake's Thenardier is quite dark and dangerous enough for their villain roles.

The show is not perfect. The condensed version of the very long novel means some plot awkwardnesses. Valjean goes from ex-con to prosperous businessman and mayor between scenes, the student revolutionaries come out of nowhere, the Thenardiers wander in and out of the action unrealistically, and characters like Fantine or Gavroche are introduced just to be killed off.

One of the complaints I had 16 years ago was that the sung-through score seemed perversely determined to resist any pull toward melody, and the return visit confirms this to some extent. 

Although, as I have noted, some of the big set pieces do register powerfully, many of the numbers, like Javert's two solos or the trio "A Heart Full of Love," are extended recitatifs that just don't have a hummable tune.

And too many of those songs that do have good melodies, like "Do You Hear The People Sing?" break off just as they're getting exciting. (It is in part because she gets one of the best songs - simply as a song - in the show - "On My Own" - that the actress playing Eponine makes so strong an impression.)

At any rate, I hereby humbly withdraw 16 years of misguided disdain for those who enjoyed Les Miserables. It really is a good show.

Gerald Berkowitz

(Be aware that long-running shows will have had cast changes since our review was written.)

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Review - Les Miserables  - Palace Theatre 1986