Wednesday 22 January 2020

Les Misérables - Review

Sondheim Theatre, London


Concept, book and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil
Book and music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell

Bradley Jaden and Jon Robyns

Arriving in London following a toured and international try-out, Les Misérables (or rather Les Mis 2.0 as the programme affectionately describes it) opens at Cameron Mackintosh’s newly revamped Sondheim (formerly the Queens) Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.

For nearly 35 years this behemoth of show has dominated the global musical theatre scene, spawning a movie treatment along the way and for one simple reason. For not only are Claude-Michel Schönberg’s melodies as stirring as they are heart-rending in equal measure, with Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics skewering the very essence of humanity with wit and tenderness, but at the core of Les Misérables is Victor Hugo’s classic novel that is possibly unmatched in its ability to drive a musical. For however smart the words or snappy the tunes, a good show demands to be constructed upon a sound book and Hugo’s is the best. It may be set at least two centuries ago, but this epic tale of humanity, redemption, forgiveness, envy and greed still packs a relevant and oh-so timely punch, particularly as cries for the recognition of democracy have only recently been heard echoing around these isles. Did we hear the people sing (or vote)?

There are some modest, subtle changes to Kretzmer’s prose, but the tunes are still the same and the narrative still gorgeous. The Queens’ revolve has been rolled away and in its place are Matt Kinley's automated scenery trucks married to Finn Ross' ingenious projections. It is no wonder that this production has achieved such acclaim on tour with a technical portability that the original show never could match. For the most part the new designs generally deliver an innovative take on their predecessor, but it has not been a perfect transition. The tragic impact of the second half's Final Battle, where back in the day and with one half-turn the old revolve revealed the massacred students’ bodies, is not lived up to in v 2.0. The projections and techno-wizardry are fun though, as pyrotechnically enhanced fusillades ricochet around the auditorium (credit to Mick Potter's sound design). reminiscent of the audio brilliance of Saving Private Ryan’s opening battle scene.

[SPOILER ALERT] Javert’s Suicide is a (visual) treat. In place of the bridge’s balustrade being whisked up to the flies, the eponymous cop himself joins the flying squad. Indeed, so spectacular is Javert’s death that one is only left hoping for something even more celestially impressive for Jean Valjean’s last gasp. Sadly, when our hero does eventually expire, the moment is nowhere near as visually thrilling as Javert’s demise.

Vocally the piece remains a classy gathering of talent. Jon Robyns ages majestically through the piece as Valjean, his dramatic tenor tones catching the full range of his heroic character’s power and sensitivity. Opposite Robyn and hunting him across the years, Bradley Jaden captures Javert’s flawed but principled complexities.

Carrie Hope Fletcher sees a sideward promotion (to the Green Room for most of the show) as she takes over Fantine. Fletcher’s vocal talent and presence remains is amongst the finest of her generation and her singing exquisite. But is she a Fantine? Although this reviewer is unconvinced, Fletcher’s 500K Twitter followers may well have a different view. 

Hauled back in from the touring production, Ian Hughes’ Thénardier is in fine form capturing the show’s comic moments with perfect timing and delivery. Opposite him, the always outstanding Josefina Gabrielle’s Mme Thénardier is equally brilliant. But to take a step back for one moment, times have moved on since the 1980s. In this #MeToo era is it really right to be laughing so whole-heartedly at such a couple of child-abusers as the Thénardiers? The pair are actually terrifying monsters, rather than clowns. Elsewhere, the eternal triangle of Marius, Eponine, and Cosette is played well by Harry Apps, Shan Ako and Lily Kerhoas respectively. There is vocal talent here a ‘plenty but the true and passionate chemistry that these roles demand has yet to fully emerge.

Above all it is Kretzmer’s stunning lyrical treatment of those soaring French melodies (on press night, immaculately delivered under Steve Moss’ baton) woven around a story that is breathtaking in its scope that still define Les Misérables as a night of world class musical theatre.

Booking until 27th October
Photo credit: Johan Persson

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