Do you hear the people sing? Yes, I do. And I hear them cry – there are even nose-blowing sobs to the left of me. I also hear the roar of approval with thunderous applause that sees the whole auditorium on its feet as soon the stage goes black. This sensational new touring production of Les Misérables has taken us on a three-hour rollercoaster of emotions in a way only live theatre can.
I’ve seen this musical many times and I never get tired of it. It’s an epic story based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, with Boublil and Schönberg’s equally epic score. There always feels to be something new to focus on when watching it and this sensational new touring production feels more of everything – it’s louder, bawdier, more brutal, and more immersive than I remember.
Laurence Connor and James Powell’s direction doesn’t shy from the harsh realities of the poverty in early 19th-century France and false morality, which sees young Fantine banished from her workplace when the boss learns she has a young daughter with a man who later deserted her. Jean Valjean understands what it’s like to be on the wrong side of public judgement and holds secrets of his own. He is the voice of mercy, rescuing Fantine’s child, Cosette from the clutches of swindling publicans, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier. But despite his willingness to change Valjean is haunted both mentally and physically by Inspector Javert whose vengeance knows no bounds. It’s high drama and being completely sung only heightens the emotion. It’s the theatrical equivalent to a good weepy movie. Don’t even try to hold it in because no-one else is – it feels like people are ready to let go of too many pent-up emotions and this is the perfect opportunity.
The 2012 film starring Hugh Jackman as Valjean has set the bar high for those seeing the musical for the first time after watching the movie version. This stage version takes account of the sophistication of audiences today and designer Matt Kinley uses all the stage effects in his armoury to place the audience at the heart of the action. The set is huge and constantly changing, with the movement so slick it feels filmic. The scenery is overlayed by a series of projections inspired by paintings of Victor Hugo, which add deeper layers of interest to draw us further and further in. As they march in revolution, I’m with them every step of the way.
It all comes together with a top-notch cast. Both Dean Chisnall as Valjean and Nic Greenshields as Javert bring gravitas to their performances, reprising roles they’ve both played in previous productions. Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh also return to the roles of Monsieur and Madame Thenardier and have the comedy of the inn-keepers timed to perfection. Young lovers Cosette and Marius are both played by actors at the very start of their careers. Making their professional debuts in the production Paige Blankson and Will Callan bring a freshness and vulnerability that adds to the raw emotion of the evening. While the sweetness of Katie Hall as Fantine and desperation of Nathania Ong’s Eponine are both pitch perfect.
If you haven’t seen Les Misérables before – go. If you have seen it before – go again. It’s rousing, it’s passionate, it’s everything we need from theatre right now. It’s terrific.