Awesome Les Mis storms barricades

Moment of destiny: John Owen-Jones sees the light as Jean Valjean. Pictures: Michael le Poer Trench

Les Misérables

Birmingham Hippodrome

 *****

FIFTY Six million people can't be wrong - 56,000,001 now if you include me. 

That's the number of people, give or take the odd row of seats here and there, who have seen Les Misérables since it opened at The Barbican in 1985 to less than enthusiastic reviews.

OK, so the critics were wrong . . . it happens . . . occasionally.  Twenty five years on and the original in London, now at the Queen's Theatre, is the world's longest running musical, The Mousetrap of musicals, and a tourist attraction in its own right while this new touring production is simply awesome. 

The sets are huge and spectacular, the cast faultless and - the acid test - the show seems to last nowhere near the three hours indicated by watches.

The musical is based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same name and tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a reformed prisoner on the run. When Fantine, one of his workers, is sacked without his knowledge because she has had an illegitimate child, Cosette, her life falls apart and as she dies, Valjean full of remorse vows to bring up her child. 

That is easier said than done when there is a police inspector on his tail determined to return him to jail and there is also a small matter of a revolution led by students in protest at treatment of the poor just around the corner.

RELENTLESS PIECE OF THEATRE

Not the stuff of musicals you might think, no hills alive there, dancing all night or corn as high as elephant's eyes to play with but this is much closer to opera than Oklahoma where love, tragedy and noble causes are stock in trade and the result is a relentless piece of theatre.

John Owen-Jones, from South Wales, was voted both the best JeanValjean ever and the best Les Mis performer ever in a worldwide poll of Les Mis fans and it is easy to see why. He has that certain stage presence which sets some performers apart, a powerful tenor voice and the counter tenor of an angel with Bring Him Home on the barricades a performance which makes hairs stand up on necks.

Not that he has it all his own way. Earl Carpenter as the downright nasty Inspector Javert shows a fine baritone and his suicide leap into the Seine is a spectacular special effect using the giant video screen and clever flying.

The screen provides a constantly changing back drop of prison, of cities and towns and of the sewers of Paris as Valjean carries his future son in law Marius to safety after the short lived revolution.

Fantine's I Dreamed A Dream, was a hear a pin drop moment with perhaps the best known song in the show, well known and a standard long before Susan Boyle appeared on Britain's Got Talent, while Rosalind James had a memorable voice in an equally memorable performance as Thénardiers' daughter Éponine

DELICIOUSLY DESPICABLE

The dastardly Thénardiers  (right) almost steal the show with the buxom Lynne Wilmot and the deliciously despicable Ashley Artus - how Fagin fails to be in his CV is a mystery - as the horrendous villains of Dickensian proportions.

Artus manages it with such a light, sure touch and impeccable comic timing that the audience would forgive him and his wife almost anything.

Gareth Gates, the first Pop Idol runner up in 2002, makes a fine Marius, (below) the idealistic young revolutionary saved from the slaughter on the barricades by Valjean  to marry Cosette, Katie Hall. It must be a relief for him to be judged as an actor rather than screamed at as a mere celebrity these days and his bittersweet solo Empty Chairs at Empty Tables had some real poignancy about it.

Throughout it all is the fine orchestra under Peter White who managed to get a good balance between singer and sound which is not always easy.

The direction by Christopher Key keeps the action moving at a fair old lick but that is also thanks to a brilliant set design by Mat Kinley. Whole walls and streets, broken carts, bridges, barricades, inns, cafes, country mansions and even a red light district glide silently into place or back into the wings or flies with no pause with the screen at the back adding mood and atmosphere.

BIG PRODUCTION

This a big production in every way with a dozen 45ft artics trundling the show from venue to venue around the countryside and the fact that the crew can unload and set the whole thing up ready to go with lighting, scenery, props and the rest in a strange theatre in a mere 48 hours is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Then there are some 101 cast and crew for each performance, 392 full costumes with 1,782 items of clothing and 31 wigs not to mention all the props carried on and off. 

The facts and figures are endless; the show has been translated in 21 languages and produced in 41 countries with more than 43,000 professional performances, 33 cast recordings and on and on.

The show started as a French concept album by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg with a libretto by Alain Boublil and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and was staged as a concert event at a Paris Sports arena closing three months later when the booking ran out. 

Five years later after two years in development Sir Cameron Mackintosh produced the English version in 1985 and the rest is histoire as they say with last night's performance 25 years on, earning a well deserved standing ovation.

From the Hippodrome Les Mis goes to Edinburgh  and then heads to its birthplace of Paris from May 26 to July 4 this year where, in a twist of irony,  it will be performed in English with French surtitles.

If 56 million people having seen the show so far - and still counting - that is more than two million a year.  And with a General Election looming it is a sobering thought that since the last election in 2005 more people will have seen Les Mis than voted for Labour (9.5m), the Tories (8.8 m) or the Lib-Dems (5.9m).

Les Mis rules - OK!

To 17-04-10

Roger Clarke

 

Final word . . .

****

JUST how good is this 25th anniversary production of Boublil & Schonberg's masterpiece musical based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo?

I was out of the country on media night, but on my return so many friends were raving about the sell-out show I decided to try to buy a couple of return tickets, and eventually succeeded.

I must have seen Les Mis at least half a dozen times, including the schools edition, and never been disappointed, so I was very interested to see how the various changes introduced worked. Could they add to the enjoyment, or be seen as trying to 'mend' something that was not broken?

The black and white street scenes played on a huge screen at the rear of the stage worked well, particularly when our hero, Jean Valjean, was carrying the badly wounded student, Marius, away from the fighting and to safety. A definite improvement.

The scene where single-minded cop, Javert, leaps to his death from a river bridge, is definitely more effective, but the famous barricade was built with so many gaps a kid with a peashooter could have penetrated it.

And the there is a change for the better as the musical opens with the chain gang, instead of breaking rocks, are being whipped as they desperately row a ship in heavy seas.

John Owen-Jones, voted the best-ever Jean Valjean, is superb as the reformed convict and I have never heard the emotional 'Bring Him Home' sung better.

On the down side, Earl Carpenter, impressive as the cruel Javert, doesn't quite do justice to the soliloquy before he jumps to his death, and in the comedy role of grubby innkeeper Thenardier, Ashley Artus never reaches the heights achieved by Alun Armstrong who was quite brilliant in the part.

Nor did the finale match that of past productions. Nevertheless, still a value for money show, expensive as it is. And many people in the audience gave the show a standing ovation.

Paul Marston 

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