Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 23 September, 2010

One or two venues in London are not presenting Les Misérables this autumn. The musical celebrates its silver jubilee by bringing the current touring production into the Barbican, where the original version began in 1985 before moving to the West End where it’s still running; in addition, a concert presentation will shortly be staged at the O2 Arena. Is it worth all the fuss? Well, almost. More even than Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg rewrote the rules of the modern musical with this show, turning it more or less into opera for people who mistakenly feel that "real" opera is above them – a kind of ersatz high culture. But the material is not by any means inferior; perhaps “contemporary high culture” puts it better.
When I last saw the show, ten years ago in the West End, I felt that for performers and audience alike it had become something of a ritual rather than an immediate experience. Ten years is too long ago to make detailed comparisons, but it strikes me that reimagining the staging along slightly simplified lines for a touring production has been advantageous. Designer Matt Kinley has created a series of projected backdrops based on the drawings of Victor Hugo: brooding, blurred land- and skyscapes, which Paule Constable’s lighting alternately harmonises with and contrasts as it picks out the players. John Owen-Jones gives the requisite powerhouse performance as Jean Valjean, living a virtuous life whilst pursued for parole-breaking by the too-zealous Javert (Earl Carpenter), and Rosalind James is also excellent as Éponine, cherishing her unrequited love for Marius (a Gareth Gates-looking young chap who turns out actually to be Gareth Gates). Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot as the grasping Thénardiers are as brash as their musical numbers, which sound as if they have blown in from a show by Lionel Bart.
The evening could so easily boil down into industrial quantities of syrup and bombast. It is also tempting to assume that what redeems it is Hugo’s original material, but that isn’t necessarily so... remember the flop musical of his Notre Dame de Paris? It just seems to be one of those once-in-a-blue-moon fortuitous combinations, which even Boublil and Schönberg have been unable to replicate (coming nearest with Miss Saigon). Yes, Les Mis can still make the heart leap and the eyes mist.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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