Most people appreciate that Les Miserables is one of the greatest musicals of all time. Despite its rather, well, miserable premise the show manages to maintain a loyal legion of fans across the country. Generally people have to journey to the West End to see the show, but this year the musical is touring the country to bring Boubil & Schonberg’s classic to the masses.
The musical, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, follows prisoner Jean Valjean as he dedicates his life to being the best man he can be. Hot on his heels is Inspector Javert, who believes no criminal can ever truly change, and works to bring Jean Valjean back behind bars. Meanwhile, French students begin a rebellion believing the people will rise to fight with them. As the title of the musical suggests, this doesn’t quite go to plan.
Though generally a rather melancholy, despairing piece the overall tone is uplifting and poignant – filled with a message of love, forgiveness and repentance.
The show’s success balances on the power of our leading men: Jean Valjean and Javert, and this production has the cream of the crop. Killian Donnelly, who has a backlog of incredibly impressive theatre credits, handles the role as though he’s telling his own life story. He moves from a deeply angry and aggressive former con to a gentle, loving elderly man throughout the piece with an almost unnoticeable transition (his ageing hair and makeup are also fantastic, so kudos to Jessica Barthropp, Charlotte Lander and team). It goes without saying that Donnelly’s singing voice is tremendous and pitch-perfect, effortlessly taking on tremendously difficult songs. However, it’s his acting that makes the role his own. In an almost Shakespearean manner, Donnelly translates Valjean’s thoughts and inner turmoils with stunning subtlety, and I come away seeing a vulnerability and morality in the character I hadn’t seen before.
Nic Greenshields as Javert is also exceptional. The clever direction from Laurence Connor and James Powell sets up the relationship between the two nicely when their first conflict arises – Javert does not let Valjean leave to save Cosette out of the goodness of his heart, but rather because Valjean is a great deal stronger than him and, frankly, he’s going to clear off whether Javert likes it or not. This gives the character an element of powerlessness which works beautifully alongside his regimented, law-abiding petty sense of morality. Greenshields delivers hit number Stars with that same stern characterisation, bubbling with emotion under the surface. Again, subtly prevails.
The female leads let their male counterparts down. Will Richardson as Enjolras and Harry Apps Marius shine in their roles as students fighting for change. Bronwen Hanson makes a stroppy turn as Cosette (who frankly should be a little more grateful Valjean saved her from a life of misery with the vile Thenarier’s!) and Tegan Bannister doesn’t bring enough vulnerability to Eponine. The scrappy, independent female take on the role works well, but her love for Marius seems insincere. Though Katie Hall as Fantine can undoubtedly sing like an angel, she sings I Dreamed a Dream like an X Factor contestant, not a destitute young mother driven to the edge of despair. Her emotionless rendition makes Fantine’s storyline seem insignificant and dreamlike, where the song really has the potential to be a tear-jerker and encourage the audience to feel full empathy for her plight.
The ensemble are superb, as is the direction and choreography. The action weaves from scene to scene without the need for overblown ensemble numbers or OTT special effects. This means that, when the audience is treated to special effects, goodness me are they special. The projection screen, realised by Fifty-Nine Productions, displays grimly beautiful backdrops to each scene. The artistry of these backdrops is staggering and really adds to the overall feeling – grime and misery, airbrushed just enough to not leave us feeling utterly despairing.
The barricade scene is particularly impressive, with a focus on the waste of life and young hopes shattered rather than unnecessary ghoulishness. The talents of the creative team shine throughout – from impressive costumes to breath-taking sets and sound/lighting effects. Every aspect of this production works together to build a magnificent show – it’s no wonder this show can simply not be beaten in terms of its production value and magnitude of wow-factor.
It’s expected that the orchestra will be sublime, but they really are. Lead by Musical Director Ben Atkinson the musicians piece the show together with their stunning musicianship.
I really cannot recommend this production highly enough. Often touring productions from the West End are a cheaper/condensed/overall-less-impressive version of their London counterparts but this is not the case. I much preferred this version to the West End show I saw many years ago. This goes beyond a musical retelling of a story – it’s world-class artwork across each and every aspect of the production.
If you can still grab a ticket for the show, you really must try to go and see it. Visit the Alhambra Theatre website for further information. The show runs until 10th August.
Photograph credited to Johann Persson