After ten years Les Misérables, the longest running musical in history, is touring the UK and has returned to Cardiff. Victor Hugo’s seminal 1861 novel spans one of the most turbulent periods of French history including both the living conditions of the 19th century poor and the 1832 June Rebellion. However, the musical adaptation itself created a turbulent history as it opened to less than stellar reviews at the Barbican Theatre in 1985 but the public imagination was so captured that not even Cameron Mackintosh could get through to the box office on the phone the day following opening night. The original 1985 staging, primarily set around the revolving stage, remained consistently running until earlier in 2019 when it was announced that, incorporated in the show’s extended break from its London home to allow for renovations, Mackintosh’s 2009 25th anniversary re-staging, originally devised for touring and international productions, will be the permanent London staging from December 2019.
Les Misérables is often cited as the first show and/or soundtrack theatre lovers become aware of and fall in love with. This was certainly the case for me. Whilst I had seen the family VHS tapes of both Cats and Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat, when my mum brought home a DVD of the 10th anniversary production of Les Misérables, only for Ruthie Henshall not aware of anything else, it was love at first watch and listen for me and from then I was hooked on a whole industry. Years later in 2016 I was lucky enough to see the original staging in London and later I was even luckier to see the all-star staged concert, featuring John Owen-Jones and others, at the Guilgeud Theatre. Now I was so excited to finally see the new staging for the first time and in the Wales Millennium Centre stop of its UK Tour after only recently having a cast change.
After seeing him previously as The Narrator in Blood Brothers and in the titular role of Shrek: The Musical I was certainly intrigued to see Dean Chisnall as Jean Valjean. Whilst not the most authoritative of figures during Valjean’s time as mayor, Chisnall shines as the man who transitions from an angry and violent convict into specifically a loving caring father figure growing in religious faith as well. His voice is powerful yet clear as a bell during both ‘Bring Him Home’ and conversational sections. I also appreciated the correlation between Chisnall’s interpretation and the new production in the ageing process of Valjean as it grounds the show and its time frame in both his personal growth and physical decline.
Nic Greenshields’ Javert is such an interesting figure to watch. Firstly, he is so tall! In the opening 1815 and 1823 half of Act One he cuts the perfect depiction of a stout Javert secure of his work, convictions and middle to upper station in life as a respected inspector. He has a powerful tenor and menacing cowl to complete the character but even as wonderful as it was to listen to his rendition of ‘Stars’ I began to worry he had fallen into a singular interpretation. I was completely wrong and Greenshields was simply awaiting the perfect moment to depict the cracking of his Javert. I will not spoil when this happens but I believe it is perfect and struck me emotionally. I will say that this cracking has less to do with Valjean than previous interpretations meaning that Greenshields and Chisnall have, at least from my perspective, a slightly different relationship as Javert and Valjean in which the latter adds to the disintegration of the former’s conviction rather than claiming sole responsibility.
I will admit that on my first viewing, and the many after that, I was not the biggest fan of Cosette’s character even including the original novel at times. However, Katie Hall, who played Cosette in the 25th anniversary concert production, was the first actress who really emphasised Cosette’s attempts to defy Valjean in a quest for information and it truly made me appreciate the character more. To mention here, I’m glad to say that I am really liking the interpretations of Cosette more than I have previously. In this production Charlie Burn is a truly lovely Cosette who effortlessly displays the virtue of the character. All of this to say, whilst I predominantly interested to finally see the new production, in terms of the cast I was especially excited to see Katie Hall both in person and in the relatively new role of Fantine as she has been touring in the role for the previous year. I was so impressed by her ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and her interpretation of particular and unique inflections on individual words some of which I’ve certainly never heard recently. I also loved her spiritual appearance in the finale as her appropriately heavenly voice was combined with movement choreography which placed her at the forefront of the piece again.
In a similar vein to my previous feelings on Cosette, I’ve never previously been overly enamoured with many Thénardiers. I’ve appreciated their actors for the excellent comedic timing but in terms of the cast they don’t often capture my attention as much as other characters do. However, in this production Ian Hughes proved to be such an intriguing Thénardier who I just could help but watch whenever he was on stage. In costume his frame and mannerisms appear as if the character had been lifted from the pages of the novel and his ageing in line with Valjean and comedic excellence alongside Helen Walsh provided moments of relief grounded in a character with a clear past behind him.
The casting of Felix Mosse and Barnaby Hughes as Marius and Enjolras, and the other students, clearly hammers home the youth igniting the June rebellion and the tragedy of their loss. Mosse follows this in his rendition of ‘Empty Chairs at Emory Tables’ where he presents not a Marius changed by grief or cynicism towards life but rather the same boy comprehending the now permanent absence of his friends. However, the new production effortlessly allows Enjolras and the partnership between Grantaire and Gavroche to rather steal the show from him. The changes made to the deaths of these characters, I believe, are far closer to Hugo’s original intention from the novel and they are all heartbreaking moments which really show just what a fully scaled and staged production of Les Misérables is capable of achieving even before the finale which never fails to make me cry.
Moving into the production itself, there is just so much detail everywhere you look ranging from the set, music, lighting and movements of the actors. Firstly, I have been critical of the overuse of projection in lieu of full set pieces and design previously, however, I believe that this production demonstrates a perfect marriage between an impressive fully set stage and projections proving wider staging, context and movement unavailable to the practical elements. For the practical set the moment of the barricade entrance has been mirrored in another suitable wow moment as the second rendition of ’Look Down’ begins. The decision to base the watercolour backgrounds of the scenery on Hugo’s own paintings was excellent and I have to say I adore these backdrops and the subtlety of their projected movement. I truly wouldn’t have the setting any other way. The lighting plays its own part in the show alongside the actors. It grounds the show again in its original religious basis so important to Hugo’s intention but in a subtle way meaning it is there for those who see it and unintrusive for those who are attracted to the show for other aspects. The movement of the actors and direction of the ensemble across the set pieces, especially in moments of no dialogue, is so intriguing that you could watch two members of the ensemble for a whole song. This staging is epic, detailed, grounded and grand in scope all at once and it truly embodies the spirit of Les Misérables and the music loved by millions.
The only character who I feel suffered in terms of characterisation and movement in the new production is Eponine. Frances Mayli McCann gives quite an adorable version of a clearly young Eponine searching for friendship distinguished both in her accent from the students and in the powerful belt which appears as soon as she’s alone. However, what I’m going to talk about here is only the effects of the new production and direction on Eponine’s character rather than any comment on this individual performance.
I will be discussing spoilers in the paragraph below.
I was initially in love with the epic reveal of the barricades behind Eponine and expected her to have this truly sensitive moment as she runs offstage technically away from the thing which kills her. In the original production she proved her fearlessness in climbing the barricade specifically to tell Marius of the result of her errand and to be with him, with far darker intentions in the novel. Here she is shot as she climbs up and everyone rushes to her aid as Marius comes forward as her friend and everyone looks on in concern as she dies, ultimately dedicating their fight to her. However, in this new production she does not run from the barricades and then return out of love for Marius as expected but rather is shown to be, in the space of a minute from their reveal, behind the barricade assisting in moving ammunition only happening to be shot as she moves Marius out of the way but even this moment happens very quickly. As they sing ‘Little Fall of Rain’ everyone else simply continues with their preparations as if nothing is happening and it is only in the last verse that they notice her dying yet they still dedicate their fight to her. Also, as she appears with Fantine her lines in the conclusion felt quite quick and she didn’t really have the opportunity to make an impact emphasising some questions from the original as to why she appears to Valjean rather than the Bishop. Overall, I understand this is personal preference but I simply wish that the intentions of her character had been taken into account when changing the staging of her death and that her finale moments had perhaps been extended or slowed to allow her to impact the scene.
In conclusion on the new production of Les Misérables I can assure you as a long time fan of the show that the story and music are both in an incredibly safe and gorgeous place with this new staging. It fills both the space and story as required. I implore anyone perhaps unsure about the lack or revolve and new pieces to give it a try and see what you think. In terms of the touring production specifically many of the cast do take very particular routes of characterisation which fall to personal preference if you are in the habit of seeing multiple casts and interpretations. However, I came away from this show loving characters I didn’t expect to, seeing exquisite new moments of characterisation and interpretation and the impact of even secondary characters stealing some scenes. It is Les Misérables through and through and captures the attention as it always has, and always will.
Les Misérables is running at the Wales Millennium Centre until the 4th of January and you can search for tickets here: https://www.wmc.org.uk/en/whats-on/2019/les-miserables/