Review: Les Misérables (Festival Theatre and touring)
The touring production of the hit musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg arrives in Edinburgh
The Les Misérables musical juggernaut started rolling way back in 1985, and it hasn't stopped since. This "new" touring production by Laurence Connor and James Powell (which actually started life in 2009) is only its latest iteration, and it is opening in Edinburgh as part of a UK and Ireland tour that will take it right through to 2020.
Coming to it from the original production, this one feels a little static at first, mainly because there's less opportunity for eye-popping set transformation; but once you've made your peace with the lack of revolving stage, it's actually very effective. Matt Kinley's sets slide in and out quickly, making the scene transformations flow smoothly, and he frequently makes a virtue out of limitation by, say, having Valjean's Paris garden open to the street. The big visual innovation is the animated backdrop, inspired by Victor Hugo's own drawings and realised by 59 Productions. Often it's a simple Paris streetscape, but it comes into its own in the animated sewer scene, which is much more effective than before, and it makes a real theatrical coup out of [spoiler alert!] Javert's demise.
Most importantly, the musical performances are really strong, led by a brilliantly vigorous Valjean from Killian Donnelly, a young performer who plays the older man with broiling energy. He has a great foil in Nic Greenshields' Javert, whose bright voice convincingly comes into its own in his solo numbers. Valjean and Javert are parallel opposites – grace and mercy vs justice and law – so they need to be evenly matched, and that pairing is this production's highlight.
That filters down to the other roles, too. Katie Hall makes a moving, vulnerable Fantine, and Tegan Bannister's Éponine has great stage presence. Will Richardson has charisma to spare as Enjolras, more so than Harry Apps' pale Marius, and Bronwen Hanson makes an unusually characterful Cosette, her bright soprano turning this rather priggish part into something a lot more interesting than normal. The comic grotesquery of the Thénardiers is dialled up a bit too much for my liking, but they bounce off the ensemble well, and the singing of the chorus is never less than committed.
I could quibble about the belting tendency of some of the singers, or the irritating rubato that too many small parts use in the ensembles; but most criticisms tend to melt away in the face of the indestructible power of Boublil and Schönberg's songs, which swept me away all over again as though I was witnessing them for the first time. My head kept pointing out the simplifications from the novel and the implausible character developments, but my heart kept swelling up as I fell under the show's emotional spell again, and in the act one finale I felt myself properly welling up, remembering why I loved it so much the first time. I guess you could say it had brought me home.