Watching the 25th Anniversary touring production of Les Miserables, which opened at the Bristol Hippodrome this week for a four week run, it is hard to believe that the show is over a quarter of a century old.
This Cameron Mackintosh produced musical is based on Victor Hugo’s celebrated story of ‘Jean Valjean’; sentenced to 19 years imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, and who on release, when subjected to persecution, breaks parole and is chased across the years by his nemesis, Inspector Javert. Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s musical adaptation was first presented on the stage in Paris in 1980. The English language version opened in London, to very critical reviews, in 1985, and on Broadway two years later.
Whatever magic ingredient has contributed to making this the longest running musical in the history of London’s west end - when their later, but equally magnificent, productions of Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre have not achieved such longevity - is clearly still there in spades, and filling regional theatres wherever it plays.
With the help of a cleverly re-imagined set, designed by Matt Kinley, making full use of technical advancements of the past few years – especially in the use of the now ubiquitous back screen projection - a sharpened telling of the story, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, and some stunning new special effects, this production seems as fresh and immediate as it did in 1985.
With such huge and beautifully drawn caricatures it would be almost impossible for any actor in one of the key roles not to drag a standing ovation out of an audience, and this cast certainly does not disappoint. Veteran of the London production, John Owen Jones, as Valjean, is superb - his rendition of ‘Bring Him Home’ truly heartbreaking. Madalena Alberto, brings a new depth to Fantine, the factory worker, who’s wretched existence and untimely death gives new purpose to Valjean’s life, in the form of her daughter Cosette who, left in the ‘care’ of the Thenardiers (in a delightful, scenery chewing performance by Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot) faces a bleak future.
Earl Carpenter, also a veteran from the London production, makes a formidable and believable Javert, driven by his unfaltering belief in the law, and his delivery of ‘Stars’ - one of the finest ballads in the show- is a real goose bump moment!
Gareth Gates, as Marius, proves himself to be a fine musical theatre actor, and has a sweet, if slightly under-powered, voice – most effective in the love duets with the adult Cosette (the lovely Katie Hall) – and in the gut-wrenching ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’. Jon Robyns on the other hand, as revolutionary Enjolras, has the huge and powerful voice and enormous presence needed to deliver ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ and his role in the ensemble anthem ‘One Day More’.
As Gavroche, the little street urchin, young Toby Prynne is excellent, and steals every scene he is in – and special mention must go to Rosalind James who, as ill-fated Eponine – hopelessly in love with Marius (who does not reciprocate her feelings) – and daughter of the treacherous Thenardiers, magnificantly conveys a mix of vulnerability and strength in her desperate, colourless existence. Her rendition of ‘On My Own’ is sublime.
With the London production still playing to packed houses, a sell-out 25th anniversary concert at the 02 Arena due in October, and this year-long international tour, the Les Miserables phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down, and is certain to entrance thousands more theatre-goers in years to come.
Les Miserables plays at the Bristol Hippodrome until 7 August.