Review: Les Misérables (Queen’s Theatre, London)

What’s it all about?

This is a musical of epic proportions. Not satisfied with covering a single event within history, it spans nearly 20 years in the run up to unrest within France in the 19th century. Jean Valjean is a man imprisoned for 19 years for pinching a loaf of bread. Upon release he breaks parole, makes something of himself and becomes a respectable gentleman, where he finds a girl named Fantine. Fantine has a child (being looked after by the most unlikely babysitters, the Thérnardiers) and when she is fired from her job at Valjean’s factory, she turns to whoring to make a few quid to send back to the child. Fantine dies and Valjean feels bad, so he vows to look after the daughter, Cosette, in Fantine’s place. All the while he is being chased down by one of those authoritarian types, Javert, who feels that 19 years was not long enough for Jean Valjean to repent for his bread theft – clearly there weren’t any murderers about to keep him busy.

Meanwhile, there’s another girl, Eponine (actual daughter of the Thérnardiers), who fancies a boy, Marius. Unfortunately for her it’s completely one sided and Marius has spotted the grown up Cosette and uses Eponine to find a way to get near to her. At which point a band of rebels, led by the charismatic Enjolras, builds a big barricade to fight off the army. Eventually, and somewhat inevitably, the rebels are defeated and they largely all die. Except, of course, Valjean and Marius, who flee the bloodshed so that Marius can marry Cosette just as Valjean dies of old age. And then they all (except Fantine, Eponine, Javert, Enjolras, and Valjean) live happily ever after.

The words…

The book for Les Misérables largely centres around the score, being a sung through musical, which is by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. And there’s no doubt that they had high ambitions in condensing down a French epic into a respectably sized musical. Over the years, I’ve heard it’s been condensed even further – the result of a cast and orchestra singing and playing that little bit faster so they can get themselves back to bed – but at a whopping three hours it’s not one of the shortest musicals in London. Does it work? Well for the most part, yes, however I’ll happily admit that by the end I was starting to lose attention. By including so many plot lines and so many central characters, it becomes a never-ending cycle of jumping from one character to another. It wouldn’t be so much of a problem if their narratives felt more interlocked or were all as equally interesting, but they are neither of those things which means there are inevitably lulling moments in the show (Cosette, I’m talking about you here) where you’re willing it to move on to something more engaging.

The talent…

If there’s one thing that can’t be criticised, it’s the talent on stage, and even though this was my first visit to the Queen’s to see it, I’ve read about dud casts in the past. That’s not the case at the minute. Easily the standout of the night was Jeremy Secomb who played Javert with enough menace to be imposing, but just hinting at the weaker sense of failure that the character needs. Peter Lockyer was a solid Jean Valjean, although at times didn’t quite get across the character’s strength, and his Bring Him Home wasn’t the pivotal moment it should have been. Rachelle Ann Go as Fantine was as stunning as she is in any production, and her I Dreamed a Dream was one of the highlights (just a shame it takes place so early on…), and Carrie Hope Fletcher played Eponine with the confidence of someone who has been in the role for quite some years now. Finally, Rob Houchen as Marius and Bradley Jaden as Enjolras were vocally both incredibly strong, the former playing the role far less of a wet lettuce as other actors who have been in the role, and the latter being a leader despite his younger appearance.

The music…

The Les Mis score by Schönberg with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer is loved by many, and I have to agree there are some stunning moments within it. Over the past few years I Dreamed a Dream, Bring Him HomeOn My Own, One Day More, and to a lesser degree Empty Chairs at Empty Tables have all become well known outside of the musical theatre community, and rightly so because all are stunning ballads that deserve a place in history. But, outside of those key moments, I found myself quite bored, willing for the next big moment to come along. Part of the problem was the sheer number of reprises of music, which only adds to the cyclical feel of the show brought on by the breadth of characters. A piece of music or couple of lines of a song are repeated and you find yourself feeling a bit like you’ve been there before. And it all feels quite unnecessary. On the Blu-ray edition of the movie version, there’s the option to jump to key moments in the film, and I found myself wishing I had been able to do that with this.

The design…

If you’ve read other posts on my blog, you’ll know I love a good revolve. It’s engaging, keeps the action going and often ends up leading to some impressive scene transitions. None of those points apply here. Instead John Napier’s (the production designer) use of the revolve in the show ends up making everything feel like one constant blur. In fact, the damn thing never stops turning (almost) which results in one scene merging into another. The lack of scene definition (a poor choice by director Trevor Nunn, who made a similar error in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical The Woman in White) just makes the acts seem all the longer. Visually, the scenery is engaging enough, though, with a black box feel made up of grimy walls and intriguing arches, with little in the way of practical sets. The one big moment that everyone talks about is the barricade – a big reveal of woodwork rolling in from the sides ready for the battle to begin. Except of course, that for some completely odd reason, Nunn uses the set pieces in act one to represent another location, so when the barricade is revealed in act two the impact is completely lost. Baffling. In other news, the lighting design by David Hersey is both subtle and packs a real punch at creating some beautiful visuals.

The special mention…

For me, this was Jeremy Secomb, who was by far the most believable up on stage and whose performance of Stars was one of the stand out moments in the show.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

It was so very long. And there were some simple alterations to the design and the flow of the music that could have made it seem so much shorter and structured. There’s no denying the power of some of the key moments in the music, but it’s hampered by the weaker and more repetitive bridges between those. Would I go and see it again? Probably not, but if you want to catch it, it’s worth going now while the cast is so strong.

Les Misérables is now booking until 1st October 2016, but don’t expect it to end there as it’s now in its 30th year. Tickets are available from the Delfont Mackintosh website here.

And the view…

Dress circle, row C, seat 24. For less than top price, this was a great seat and I’d happily recommend it. The safety rail in view wasn’t at all a distraction and everything could be seen perfectly. The seat itself was comfortable (although three hours later I was struggling a bit…) and there was tons of legroom which was a nice surprise.

Queen's Theatre, Dress Circle, Row C, Seat 24
Queen’s Theatre, Dress Circle, Row C, Seat 24

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