Earl Carpenter as Javert. Photo: Michael Le Poer Trench
John Owen-Jones, Earl Carpenter, David Lawrence, Jonathan Alden, Madalena Alberto, Lynne Wilmot, Ashley Artus, Rosalind Jones, Katie Hall, Jon Robyns, Gareth Gates
Laurence Connor and James Powell
Already the longest running West End musical ever, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alan Boublil’s Les Misérables is currently setting a second world record.|
As the show celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday, a new production is being staged at the Barbican where it enjoyed its initial run in 1985.
With the original still continuing at the Queen’s Theatre, this marks the first time that two versions of a musical have played simultaneously in any city.
In Laurence Connor and James Powell’s new production, the staging is on a slightly smaller scale, but this only makes the experience all the more intimate and powerful. True, there are times when it tries too hard to do ‘something different’, such as when the initial chain gang become oarsmen on a ship, rowing in time with the music. It sounds a good idea, but, coupled with the over-amplification of the music (a problem that happily does not persist), it feels overbearing and too obvious a departure from ‘the norm’.
On other occasions, however, it seems as if the past twenty-five years of performances have enabled this production team to see things in the work that even the original creators did not. The ensemble numbers consequently contain an unprecedented number of tiny details that make their performance feel especially dynamic.
The trap door used so much in the West End version does not exist here, but the staging is slick with the barricades and other props rolling on and off with ease. Very appropriately, video projections of Victor Hugo’s tormented paintings of Paris are used as backdrops, which enables snow to fall across the sometimes moving images, and for us to gain a keen sense of travelling with Jean Valjean through the sewers.
The iconic One Day More is effective as the soloists sing from different levels before joining on the main stage to march forward, lines of people zig-zagging though each other as the ensemble advances. The powerful Stars benefits from introducing a bridge and lanterns to the stage, while the execution of Javert’s suicide must constitute one of the theatrical coups of the century.
The cast are not the strongest ever to be heard in the roles, but they still perform very well. Earl Carpenter as Javert fails to phrase several fast passages effectively, but otherwise has real presence. One gains a keen sense of his obsessive drive, and, aided by Chris Jahnke’s new, pared down orchestrations, he thoroughly dominates the proceedings in his stirring account of Stars. John Owen-Jones as Valjean takes time to warm up as he breathily huffs and puffs his way through the first numbers. After this, however, we genuinely feel every step of his life’s journey, and utterly believe that he is ageing in front of our very eyes. He also develops into a strong and passionate singer, with his performance of Bring Him Home proving particularly spellbinding.
Stars of Pop Idol and Your Country Needs You, Gareth Gates and Katie Hall, are effective as the lovers Marius and Cosette, if a little lacklustre. Madalena Alberto is a beautiful and sweet voiced Fantine, and Rosalind James a suitably feisty Éponine. As Monsieur Thénardier, Ashley Artus proves a strong comic actor, but even in this comedy role his singing needs to be stronger and vocally it feels as if his wife (Lynne Wilmot) is showing him the way.
When a musical has been as successful as Les Misérables a businessman could easily believe there was little to be gained, and much to be lost, by creating a new version. All credit therefore to Cameron Mackintosh for deciding to do exactly that, and to everyone else for pulling it off. Though I suspect most audience members were fans of the show already, the universal standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.
A further record will be set on 3 October when a third special concert version of Les Misérables will also play at the O2.