"Page To Stage Reviews" Blogger In Awe of Les Miserables For 30th Anniversary
Set in 19th century France, Les Misérables chronicles the life of Jean Valjean before, during and after the Paris Uprising of 1832. Valjean was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread and after nearly two decades of imprisonment he is finally given parole. However, he soon realises this isn't the same as freedom as he is judged and mistreated everywhere he goes for the one mistake he made all those years ago. He wants a fresh start and he breaks his parole to do just that. As Valjean makes a life for himself we meet peasant girl Fantine, who is also mistreated for being poor. When she loses her job, there is little she isn't willing to do for some money to support her child. Valjean meets Fantine when she is at her worst, and on her dying bed he promises to take care of the child, Cosette, as if she was his own.
As the years go by, Valjean and Cosette lead a reasonably happy life, but they never settle down anywhere for very long as Valjean is still on the run from the police inspector tracking him, Javert. Almost a decade later, Cosette meets a student by the name of Marius and the two fall in love at the height of the Paris Uprising. Swept away in the rebellion, Valjean does what he has always done: take care of Cosette, which now also means protecting Marius. But as the barricades come down across Paris and Javert is hot on the heels of the man he calls 24601, after the tattoo branded across the former prisoner's chest, will Valjean be able to keep his promise to Fantine?
This is of course only a very broad summary of what is a far more in-depth novel by Victor Hugo and musical adaptation by the hands of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (with English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer), but if you weren't yet familiar with the story – though I assume after the 2012 Oscar-winning movie adaptation few people aren't – it should be enough to understand the plot when watching the musical at the theatre.
And what an amazing experience it is to watch this story of rich vs poor, politics, oppression, justice, first love, righteousness, solidarity and so much more live on the stage at the Queen's Theatre! Except for the sequences with the barricades, the set design is actually quite simplistic yet there is an incredible epicness to the whole piece; it feels big, exciting and almost immersive (especially if you can bag a seat in the middle of the stalls), and as an audience member you really do feel like you've been transported to 19th century France as soon as the lights go down.
The night I attended the show, it was understudy central with substitutes for major roles such as Javert, Marius, Cosette and Madame Thenardier, yet if I hadn't specifically checked the box office for a list of changes I wouldn't have noticed this at all as the entire cast was incredible. There is a particular type of almost operatic singing that accompanies this classic musical which leaves absolutely no space for insecure tones without it jarring the whole performance, and not once did the cast on stage break the illusion (non-stop talking tourists in the audience on the other hand... that's a different matter).
With a large cast of leads and an extensive ensemble to boot, it's impossible to give an in-dept review on all performances, but particular stand-outs to me were Peter Lockyer, who commanded the stage with his presence in all his variations of Valjean throughout the years, and had a stunning voice to match; Adam Pearce, whose Javert actually made me feel sympathetic towards this usually easily despised character; Rachelle Ann Go, who didn't belt as much as Fantine as she did as Gigi in Miss Saigon, but her scenes were equally memorable; and Phil Daniels as Thenardier, who was menacing and comical in equal measures, and really added some balance to a character that could've so easily been one-dimensional.
Also adding an extra dimension to the already electrifying atmosphere is the fact that this is an entirely sung-through musical. This is a risky move as it could easily put the audience off or add confusion to what is a very complicated story encompassing a lot of different plot lines, but in Les Mis it absolutely works. I could happily listen to the whole cast recording on repeat, but it's the larger, layered pieces, such as Do You Hear the People Sing? and One Day More, that came across particularly well in the intimate setting of live theatre, and it was a thrill to hear the booming harmonies of the entire cast vibrate through the auditorium.
Les Misérables has been running for an incredible 30 years in the West End, first at the Palace Theatre before moving to its current home at the Queen's Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, and for good reason too. There's a captivating journey of courage and heartwarming selflessness at the core of the story, which is endlessly epic and enthralling. There are so many highs and lows for the characters that over the course of the show it genuinely feels as if you are experiencing the joys and heartbreaks of a whole lifetime with these inspiring people, which – interspersed with the moving and memorable music – makes for an exhilarating experience.