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Les Misérables (Barbican)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The 25th anniversary touring production of Les Miserables has stopped off in the venue where it all started on 8 October 1985. 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.

Then, I heralded a revolutionary ensemble show that applied the RSC principles of Nicholas Nickleby five years earlier to a genuine “rock opera” occupying brand new ground somewhere between Verdi and Andrew Lloyd Webber. There are vaudeville numbers, soaring ballads, sentimental knees-ups, two wonderful dramatic trios and of course those rousing choruses at the barricades.

Alain Boublil’s text is a cunning distillation of Victor Hugo, and Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics add not only the mood of French chansons but also of Lionel Bart’s good old schmaltz and vinegar.

The 1832 insurgents once climbed John Napier’s monumental barricaded wall (still do, at the Queen’s Theatre) which matched Hugo’s description of a teeming catacomb. 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 Paris sewers are done by projections, too. And all is bathed in the brilliant, painterly lighting of Paule Constable, quite different from that of the original’s maestro, David Hersey.

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.

The act-clinching finales are as thrilling as ever they were, beautifully staged, the complex narrative twining of “One Day More” and finally the redemptive, celestial transformation of deathbed reunions and farewells announcing the hero’s spiritual salvation and the affirmation of the human spirit in social and political optimism. You still need those Kleenex.


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