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Review: Les Misérables (Sondheim Theatre)

Boublil and Schönberg's iconic musical returns to a refurbished and renamed West End home at the Sondheim Theatre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jon Robyns as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables
© Johan Persson

There are people who have seen Les Misérables hundreds of times in its 35-year lifetime. I have watched Boublil and Schönberg's adaptation of Victor Hugo on three occasions in the theatre and once when it became a Hollywood movie. And I always feel the same way about it – I am impressed, especially by its structure and its sweep, though my heart can sometimes remain untouched.

Seeing the production in its new home at the magnificently remodelled and renamed Sondheim Theatre (formerly the Queen's) I was excited by the enthusiasm that its owner (and producer of Les Mis) Cameron Mackintosh has lavished on a particularly swanky renovation in which to showcase his long-running jewel.

With the help of his architectural team, he has melded together the styles of WGR Sprague who designed the original 1907 playhouse and the listed brutalism of the 1959 rebuild, which restored the theatre in glass and steel after a wartime bomb took out the frontage. The result is warm, welcoming and much roomier. There are even extra loos. Though not quite enough to cope with the full house thrilling to every second of the show on stage.

The newly refurbished Sondheim Theatre
© Left and right: Philip Vile, centre: Jon Kennedy

People love Les Mis with a passion and I can see why. It is beautifully made. The adapters brilliantly punctuate its bustling, hectic crowd scenes of France in the years around the time of the 1832 uprising when barricades blocked the streets of Paris, with the tragic story of Jean Valjean, a former prisoner who has served 19 years hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread, and whose attempts to live a good life are dogged by the pursuit of the steely policeman Javert, who believes in law not justice.

Each character has moments of monologue and introspection, their revelatory solos contrasting with the rousing ensemble pieces that surround them. The swift changes of focus power the show, moving it along briskly. In the original production the other thing that moved the show was a famous revolve that swiftly switched settings and created its own propulsive energy.

Ashley Gilmour as Enjolras and the company of Les Misérables
© Johan Persson

The new production on display here, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, is really not that new since it was first created for the 25th anniversary tour and has since been seen around the world. It dispenses with the revolve and substitutes Matt Kinley's designs, realised as projections by 59 Productions and Finn Ross. Based on Hugo's own smudgy paintings, they are evocative and attractive without being intrusive; Paule Constable's lighting is the star, turning the stage into a series of smoky tableaux, making each scene look like a painting in its own right.

It's all very efficient and sharp. At its heart is Jon Robyns as a big-voiced and tender-hearted Valjean, catching the character's tortured valour and bringing gentle passion to the quiet "Bring Him Home", as well as boom to the bigger numbers. I was less keen on Bradley Jaden as his adversary Javert; he is good on pointed, staccato anger but doesn't really build a character around it. Carrie Hope Fletcher doesn't make much of Fantine, surely the most thankless part in musical theatre; you come on, sing your big "I Dreamed A Dream", and then you die. She sings beautifully though, with a kind of clear-voiced honesty. Shan Ako makes more of a mark as Eponine, but that's partly because – oddly for so minor a character – she has some of the very best songs.

At the end, there is a ubiquitous standing ovation – in a gorgeous and rechristened theatre.

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