Les Miserables has become a fixture on the West End and particularly at the Palace Theatre, where it's been playing since December 1985.
Most people will be familiar with the revolutionary subject and setting of this glitzy Cameron Mackintosh production either through its West End longevity, its many international tours or the novel by Victor Hugo. Hugo himself lived through the French Revolution and even spent time fighting behind the barricades on the streets of Paris. Both the novel and the play encompass the spirit of these times and act as a canvas for the grander revolutionary theme - the plight of the working class who suffer exploitation, widespread poverty and appauling living conditions set against the incongruous privilege of the elite.
The story itself takes place over 30 years and is incredibly complex. At its most basic level, it is the life story of Jean Valjean (John Owen Jones on the night), a victim of the class struggle and a harsh and oppressive system. After spending 19 years in prison for stealing bread, he breaks his parole and, assuming a new identity, builds a much more prosperous life. His life is entwined with that of many people, including Inspector Javert (Ethan Freeman) who pursues Valjean with a single-minded, and at times ruthless, belief in duty that he carries out to its tragic end.
Despite the inherent tragedy and the weight of the title, this play is not all misery. Redemption comes with the next generation, Valjean s adopted daughter Cosette (Annalene Beechey) and student-rebel Marius (Graham Mackay Bruce), who at last find the peace and happiness that eluded Valjean for so many years. There are also lighter touches throughout, especially in the comic routines performed by Eponine's bewildered parents the Thenardiers (Nick Holder and Liz Ewing).
The level of performances overall is high - both from the actors and the orchestra. Freeman's Javert is especially strong, as is Gemma Wardle as Eponine who gives her life on the barricades for the love of Marius. In addition, John Napier's set design is truly sumptuous, against which the scenes and the precise choreography are masterfully rendered. From start to finish, this is one slick spectacle.
Nevertheless, the production is still somehow lacking. It simply doesn't move the heart or mind. You have the sense that the song and dance is given more attention than basic theatrical elements such as development of plot, character and the host of powerful themes mentioned earlier.
Les Miserables is definitely worth seeing - if only to see the somewhat worn grandeur of the Palace Theatre first hand. But if you want an intellectual or emotional challenge, seek it elsewhere.
Vanessa Reid, November 1997
The following readers praise the touring production...
At the moment, the touring production of Boublil and Schonberg's Les Miserables is at The Mayflower in Southampton. At first, I was a little sceptical - could a touring production of such a massive show be as good as the West End version? The answer is that there is no difference; each is just as excellent.
Many members of the cast are Palace Theatre "veterans", including Jeff Leyton and John Owen Jones, both playing Jean Valjean. I've seen both, and they are both really good in the role. Both have superb voices and character, but I think Jeff just gets the edge. He's been playing the role off and on for seven years - he is Jean Valjean!
Irishman Peter Corry is Inspector Javert, and he is very impressive. He's obviously worked very hard to get the part right, and he's succeeded, in my view. Julia Worsley was moving as Fantine, and had a beautiful singing voice. Marius was played by Norman Bowman, and for some reason didn't captivate me in the way Michael Ball's recordings do. Norman has a splendid voice, but just didn't hold the audience (or this member of it!) in the way other Mariuses have. Rebecca Vere was good as the adult Cosette; a convincing and well planned performance. The adult Eponine was played by Gemma Sandy, who in my books was not very good. On high long notes she went sharp, and was altogether too operatic for me. The Thenardiers were amusing (Cameron Blakely understudied by Tim Laurenti and Cathy Breeze) and got large amounts of applause at the end. Special mention must also go to the kids - the young Eponine, Cosette and Gavroche were very professional. It's just a shame that everyone laughs when Gavroche gets shot!
Last night I was invited to sit with the orchestra, courtesy of conductor Stephen Brooker. The team really play well together, and I must give credit to Steve as MD, because I discovered that in this theatre, the singers can't hear the band, and the band can't hear the singers! During the interval I had a long chat with Jeff Leyton in his dressing room, and before and after the show I talked to Steve about all the famous people he knows - Michael Ball, Ruthie Henshall, Kiri Te Kanawa, James Graeme, Cliff Richard (Steve arranged "Mistletoe And Wine")!
Lighting and sound are brilliant, especially in the sewer, and the stagings run smoothly all the time. The revolving stage is a bit noisy though.
The current cast leaves on 9 May, with a new cast taking over on Monday 11 May. Some members of the cast at the moment have been on the road with Les Mis for a year now, so there are some tired voices on stage! It will be good to see the new cast to see how different players interpret the roles.
The show finishes in Southampton on June 6th, and is apparently touring for another two years (Liverpool, Dublin, Bradford and Edinburgh were mentioned). Do try and see it, wherever you are, because I guarantee that you will enjoy it. It is justifiably, as the posters say, "The World's Most Popular Musical".
And I'll warn you, there are six gunshots, so don't laugh when poor little Gavroche is killed at the barricade!
Chris George, email@example.com, May 1998
I have seen the new cast twice. Peter Corry is magnificent as Javert - and I speak with some authority having seen the show 69 times!!
It's good to see Mandy Holliday back as Madame Thernardier. She is a great performer.
Jason McCann comes to the part of Enjolras from playing "The Man" at Whistle Down the Wind. He has a great voice and I think that once he has settled into the part he will be one of the more memorable student leaders.
And what about Jean Valjean. Simon Bowman . Having seen the show so many times I don't always get emotional when Jean Valjean dies, but Simon Bowman had the tears running down my face!
All in all, I would say that this is an excellent cast - I'm certainly looking forward to seeing them quite a few more times.
Joy Free, firstname.lastname@example.org, May 2000