Wednesday, December 7

Les Misérables – The Lowry

Reviewing ‘Les Misérables’ is in some ways a useless task. The show is entering its thirty seventh (!) year in production and has been seen by well over seventy million (!!) people during that time. It was famously panned by the critics at the opening but has subsequently proved to be one of the most popular ‘critic proof’ musicals with sell out audiences all over the world, Now, Boublil and Schonberg’s iconic show lands at The Lowry for six weeks having already sold virtually every ticket, once again those visitors will not be disappointed with this fresh staging of a spellbinding masterpiece.

The titanic struggle between Javert (Nic Greenshields) and Jean Valjean (Dean Chisnall), set against the backdrop of post revolutionary France, culminating in the Paris Uprising of 1832, forms the core around which a panoply of characters play out their struggles. Chisnall maps the growth of Valjean beautifully, vocally reminiscent of Colm Wilkinson (the originator of the role), his power is evident (Who Am I) whilst bringing the audience to hushed awe in quieter reflection (Bring Him Home). Greenshields uses both his enormous voice and physical presence to equal effect as Javert, the unyielding representation of the state, his version of ‘Stars’ and the later ‘Soliloquy’ are highlights of the evening. Cosette (Paige Blankson) and Marius (Will Callan) play out their innocent love tenderly whilst revolution rages around them, fermented by Enjolras (Samuel Wyn-Morris) and his fellow students. Weaving into the narrative are the Thénardiers (Helen Walsh & Ian Hughes), cockroach capitalists who always survive, there at the end to remind us that ‘clear away the barricades and we’re still there’ (Beggars at the Feast).

Photo: Danny Kaan

Director James Powell and the creative team have made some small additions to the show, darkening the already bleak storyline further, this is especially noticeable in the descent of Fantine (Katie Hall) from bold factory worker to degenerate prostitute. It was chilling to see her first client was the factory foreman who caused her downfall, and her rape by Bamatabois was enacted rather than alluded to. The entire ensemble brought life to each character, imbuing them with Dickensian realism, whether they were whimsical or just evil, giving the entire piece depth beyond the well-known songs and scenes. The orchestration of Schonberg’s score by Ben Ferguson, managed to create an intensely atmospheric (almost claustrophobic) atmosphere and this fresh interpretation has managed to remove some of the worst elements of 80’s synth pop that was present in earlier productions. Powell’s direction ensures the 160-minute run time never sags so that even a mammoth 90-minute first half flew by for the capacity Lowry audience.

Photo: Danny Kaan

What lifts this production beyond just very good, into the sphere of great, are the changes made to the scenery, lighting, projection and transitions that are now incorporated. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Producer Cameron Mackintosh dispensed with the revolve stage that had served this production so well for over 30 years. Choosing to utilise back projections (Finn Ross) of original Victor Hugo paintings was an inspired move, the abstract expressionism perfectly captures the sombre mood of 19th century French cityscapes, and when combined with the action creates a tableau which is reminiscent of Hogarth or Gilray. The set design (Matt Kinley) towers during the scenes in court and the rookeries of Paris, morphing from one to the next with seamless grace, due to a lighting design (Paule Constable) that is undoubtedly the most startling and positive change to this production. Every facet of the production was made stronger by these changes, with ‘One Day More’ closing the first act with character spotlights as well as the traditional rousing flag wave. At the curtain the audience stamped and cheered, I saw burly, grown men leaving the auditorium with tears streaming down their faces and only the faint sound of weeping was heard, instead of the usual coughs and rustling of sweet wrappers, for over three hours in the theatre.

So, is this heavyweight of the musical theatre world still punching its weight, over four decades since its inception? The answer is a resounding ‘YES’, with this new production having managed to perfectly maintain the heart at the core of the show, whilst incorporating some startling new innovations.

A superb ‘Les Misérables’ for the twenty first century and probably beyond.

Playing until 23rd April,

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 1st April 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★