Tuesday 29th November 2022 at Leeds Grand Theatre.
It’s always a bit nerve-racking, seeing a bona fide sensation with the kind of reputation that Les Misérables has for the first time. The songs of this show have somehow found their way into the psyche – whether from tongue-in-cheek cameos in sitcoms or as a general awareness for theatregoers. But nothing compares to seeing them in context – and nothing quite prepares you for the sheer force of hearing such powerful music live. So thankfully, this iconic, record-breaking show absolutely does deliver and then some. Phew!
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name and with concept, book and original lyrics by Alain Boublil, book and music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, this Les Misérables has some very, very solid foundations. It is a show defined by its wonderful score but buoyed by its epic narrative and approach to staging that narrative.
A lot goes on, that’s for sure. Revolution, brutalities in the trenches of the underclass, a dogged taste for revenge and a whirlwind romance – what’s not to love about the layers of drama? At heart though, this is a brutal tale of of man’s inhumanity to man – and particularly man’s utterly unforgiving inhumanity to WOman. But it’s also beautiful in its look at camaraderie, forgiveness and devotion – and with a score which somehow embraces all of these shades of meaning with force enough to launch several ships.
And this music, live? From the moment the woe-laden notes of “Look Down” begin – no, from the very first epic notes of the overture, you know for sure that Les Misérables is a musical of epic proportions. Later numbers, “Do You Hear The People Sing?” and “One Day More”, carry the same sense of collective suffering and call to arms, but there’s something about that refrain of “Look Down” which really captures the heart of this show for me – ensuring recognition of those who are so often silenced – sometimes a command, sometimes a plea. It’s brilliant stuff.
With a fantastic ensemble in place who make quick-changes so seamlessly and belt out their one liners like it’ll be the sound-bite to define their very existence, there’s not much to do but sit back and allow yourself to be swept along. And in truth, there aren’t enough superlatives available to describe the vocal talents on stage. Dean Chisnall’s Jean Valjean is every bit the noble wronged soul but his performance climbs the higher for his extraordinary vocal range – his “Bring Him Home” is a real highlight but his “Who Am I?” lingers far beyond the curtain call.
The same can be said of all our leads in fact: Nic Greenshields’ Javert is a perfect vengeance-seeker, blind to all but his own desires to see ‘justice’ done, but his voice is also a booming, glorious showstopper. Lauren Drew’s Fantine is a perfect betrayed damsel with a rich, textured voice which carries the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” so spellbindingly. Jenna Innes’ Eponine is a fab rebellious firecracker/ jilted would-be lover, carrying her wounds all over her vocals in the devastating “On My Own”. Rebecca Ferrin’s Cosette and Will Callan’s Marius offer the starry-eyed performances of instant infatuated lovers with swooning vocals to match.
So the tragedy is certainly fulsome here (the name says it all, etc etc), but there’s a good dose of comedy too, provided by the cheeky young rebel Gavroche, played brilliantly by Lucas Melrose Steel, and the gloriously grotesque pair of schemers Thénardier and wife, played note-perfectly by Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh. “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast” are fantastic narrative bookends, too.
James Powell and Laurence Connor direct, and do so with a sharp focus on balance – action with emotional inaction; bustle with sudden stillness; comedy with tragedy. Matt Kinley’s set and image design (the show features projections of Hugo’s paintings) take up the challenge of epic theatre with a capital E and offers gloomy, imposing visuals of looming, overladen apartments, swift glimpses of a grubby factory here and a make-shift brothel there, and of course that iconic barricade – something which surely owes much of its impact to Paule Constable’s combat-inspired lighting design. And the sense of towering theatricality is of course heightened by the presence of a wonderful live orchestra under direction of Giles Deacon.
What can I say? Les Misérables is a gorgeous piece of theatre. It carries that unmistakable epic quality which offers very real opportunities for total escapism – not in a joyous sense, granted, but definitely in that sense of being completely enveloped by a world conjured before us. With its sweeping score, high drama perfectly alleviated by comic relief and a general sense of relentless power, it never sits back, and that makes for riveting theatre.
Les Misérables is at Leeds Grand Theatre until December 10th 2022 – you can find more information and tickets here.