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Review Round-up: Barbican Brings Les Mis Home

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The 25th anniversary touring production of Les Miserables returned home to the Barbican last week (23 September 2010, previews from 14 September) where the record-breaking musical had its world premiere back in October 1985. >

The new version is directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell and designed by Matt Kinley, inspired by the works of Victor Hugo and John Napier. Original costumes are by Andreane Neofitou, lighting by Paule Constable and sound by Mick Potter.

The tour cast is led by John Owen-Jones and Earl Carpenter as the persecuted Jean Valjean and his policeman nemesis Javert (both men have previously played the same roles in the West End), as well as pop idol Gareth Gates as Marius.

Its run at the Barbican, which continues to 2 October, marks the first time that two productions of the same musical have run in the same city at the same time. And just to make sure punters get their full Les Mis fix, a star-studded concert will be held at the O2 Arena on 3 October.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - "Clearly based on the original RSC production by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, this new version nonetheless breathes its own fire and dry ice, and not only tells a fantastic story, but also, as I said on that long ago, first 'first night,' is as brilliantly coloured as it is emotionally demanding ... In this version, designer Matt Kinley has a lighter two truck system, replicates the garden wall where Cosette lives with her supposed father, Jean Valjean, and supplements the scenography with some evocative paintings ... The central symbiotic relationship of Jean Valjean and the sinister Javert is superbly sung by John Owen-Jones and Earl Carpenter. Marius is well sung, too, but weakly played by former Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates (not enough ardour), while Jon Robyns is an outstanding Enjolras and Rosalind James an irresistible Eponine blessed with a big new bluesy sound ... You still need those Kleenex."
  • David Benedict in Variety - "Nips and tucks aside, the material remains largely the same but direction, orchestrations and, chiefly, the design are new. Helmers Laurence Connor and James Powell clearly have no idea how to bring out detail in the performers, but designers Matt Kinley and Paule Constable's commanding vision sweeps skepticism aside ... The intense warmth of Constable's painterly light turns the riotous scene after the prologue into something out of a Dutch old master painting and her fiercely directional light adds poetic loneliness to isolated characters. The downside of the design comes whenever the video projections are made to move. The descent into the Paris sewers feels like watching a hand-drawn animation sequence from the back of the set ... Mackintosh's new version smartly walks the line. There's enough new vitality to justify the re-think without losing the sensibility of the original.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - "Noel Coward was once moved to remark, of an especially elaborate confection, ‘I came out humming the sets’. I’ve always felt that Les Misérables was the type of thing Coward had in mind - a succession of stunning tableaux.with new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke, Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music seems revitalised, and the orchestra, under the direction of Peter White, is potent ... The defining feature of this production is the superlative singing. The star is John Owen-Jones, who’s breathtakingly good as the hero Jean Valjean. But there is expert work all around him ... Almost as arresting are Matt Kinley’s fresh designs, which draw on Hugo’s own artworks and are gorgeously lit by Paule Constable ... While enthusiasts are likely to need no prompting to seize upon the opportunity to renew acquaintance with Les Misérables, this production will also entrance anyone encountering the show for the first time."
  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (four stars) - "Here celebrating its 25th anniversary, Les Misérables is a rousing, shamelessly entertaining evening of tuneful and spectacular popular theatre that saved the Royal Shakespeare Company from penury ... Yes, the lushness of the scoring can eventually make you feel as if you are overdosing on aural cream cakes. But while the adaptation fillets Hugo's novel and lends it a rosy, romantic glow, it doesn't rip out its heart ... I always think the sign of any good theatre adaptation is when it sends you straight to the library for a copy of the novel. This does, and it sends you there singing loudly ... John Owen-Jones is a superb Jean Valjean, providing the evening with its moral centre without a note of priggishness in his ripe, burnished voice."
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - "Since those discouraging first night notices, which came perilously close to stopping the show in its tracks, Les Mis... has become the longest running musical in history ... The show was rapturously received and all the old magic is intact. And Matt Kinley’s simpler designs, with evocative backdrops inspired by Victor Hugo’s atmospheric drawings and paintings, work superbly. But what’s really memorable is its sheer passion and pace ... The composer Claude-Michel Schonberg is an absolute master when it comes to the knockout power ballad ... The company give the piece their all. John Owen-Jones brings great heart, passion and a tremendous voice to the tormented Jean Valjean... only to be hunted down by the remorseless policeman Javert, given a memorably sinister, doom-laden performance by Earl Carpenter. The latter’s final exit is perhaps the most spectacular in modern theatre. Gareth Gates and Katie Hall are sweet, if a touch bland... while Lynne Wilmot and Ashley Artus play the comic villains with splendidly grotesque relish."
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