BWW Review: LES MISERABLES at ARTS Theatre
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 28th September 2017.
The award-winning and much-loved musical, Les Misérables, is based on the novel of the same title written by Victor Hugo, adapted by lyricist, Alain Boublil, and composer, Claude-Michel Schönberg, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. The first performance of the French production was in Paris in 1980. The original London production began in 1985 and will, therefore, celebrate its 32ndanniversary in October this year, making it the longest-running show in London's West End. This Gilbert and Sullivan Society of South Australia production sold out the entire season long before the opening night, which is hardly surprising for a musical of such standing. No matter what I say in this review, therefore, it will not boost ticket sales. It is most unfortunate that the company is unable to extend the season, but the theatre was not available.
This sensational production is co-directed by David Sinclair and Linda Williams, with Peter Johns as the musical director, combining a considerable amount of talent and experience that they bring to this performance. The technical side of the production is a massive undertaking. To begin with, the orchestra is large and, to accommodate them all, they play in the green room, located above the foyer.
In 1815, after nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and numerous escape attempts, Jean Valjean is released on a ticket of leave by the guard, Inspector Javert. He quickly learns that his ticket of leave prevents him from finding employment. He is taken in and fed by Bishop Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, but steals from him and leaves during the night. He is caught and returned to the home of the Bishop who, instead of denouncing him, lies, saying that he had given the stolen items to Valjean, then adding two valuable candlesticks to the pile and sending Valjean on his way. Valjean decides there and then to start his life again, changing his name to Monsieur Madeleine and devoting himself to good deeds. By 1823, he owns a factory and has become the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Javert, in the meantime, has devoted himself to finding the escaped convict, prisoner 24601, and believes that he has found him in this town, but Valjean realises that Javert has arrested an innocent man and reveals that he is the missing convict.
Mark Oates is no stranger to State Opera audiences and the role of Jean Valjean demands a singer of such remarkable ability. Being a superb singer, however, is only a part of the requirements for the role, and Oates has the acting ability to go with it. He doesn't merely play the character, Jean Valjean, he becomes Jean Valjean in one of the finest performances I have seen in the role, and that includes the national professional touring productions. His performance alone would be worth the price of a ticket, but it doesn't stop there.
Another State Opera performer, Andrew Crispe, plays Inspector Javert, the single-minded pursuer of Valjean, devoting himself over the decades to his recapture and imprisonment. Crispe's performance is equally exciting, presenting the powerful and imposing authority figure with great strength and conviction. Faced with the irrefutable proof that everything that he has ever believed is wrong, Javert cannot cope, and Crispe tops off his marvellous performance with an impeccable rendition Javert's Suicide.
As Fantine, the wronged worker, dismissed from Valjean's factory and reduced to selling her hair, her locket, and herself, Casmira Hambledon gives a most sympathetic characterisation, enough to have a few tissues appearing around the audience. Valjean, moved by her plight, promises to care for her daughter, Euphrasie, nicknamed Cosette, who is in the care of the innkeepers, the Thénadiers.
The Thénadiers are hideous people but, in the musical, they become, like Fagin in Oliver, the comedy relief. Kent Green and Vanessa Lee Shirley are the fortunate pair who get to portray these two horribly hilarious characters and they keep the laughs coming thick and fast.
As with all productions involving children, several young people share the child roles over the run of the production. On opening night, the role of the young Cosette was played by Ariel Higgs who was a thorough delight as the mistreated waif, whose iconic image, as depicted by Émile Bayard (1837-1891), has epitomised the musical from the beginning. Higgs brings that image to life and, I am sure, the others playing the role will be just as convincing.
Moving forward a few years and the lightly older Cosette is played by Emma Haddy, who convinces in the idea of love at first sight, displaying clearly Cosette's suddenly awakened desire for Marius. She shows genuine fear for him, knowing the dangers of what he is about to do at the barricades, in one more fine performance I this production.
Cosette and the student activist, Marius, have fallen in love at first sight. Josh Angeles is part of a highly talented family who all perform in musical theatre. His father, A. J. Angeles, in fact, plays the Bishop of Digne, very convincingly, in that brief but crucial role. Josh Angeles gives another of his excellent performances as the love-struck Marius, torn between his desire for Cosette and his duty to his friends of the revolution. He provides a well-balanced reading of the character. Keep an eye on this performer.
The Thénadiers' daughter, Éponine, is also in love with Marius, although he doesn't know it. Jennifer Trijo brings warmth and sensitivity to the role of Éponine in a sincere and touching performance. Another strong characterisation comes from Dave MacGillvray, as Enjolras, the valiant leader of the students in The June Rebellion. The heroic young boy who refused to be left out of the revolutionary action, Gavroche, was played, on opening night, by Oscar Bridges in an endearing interpretation of the role.
There are numerous minor roles, and much chorus work, all achieving a very high standard, of which the entire company can be justly proud.
David Sinclair also designed the set, maKing Brilliant use of scrims and flat panels on which images were projected to create the many scenes, without the need for massive sets and long scene changes. Brian Budgen was the scenic artist who helped to make all of this possible, aided by the elaborate lighting design by Jason Groves. Glenn Hill was responsible for providing All of the sound effects, and Helen Snoswell must be congratulated on the costuming.
Yes, there were minor imperfections: occasional intonation discrepancies in the trumpets and strings, a microphone failure, a slightly slow scene change here and there, but these are insignificant when weighed against the quality of this production as a whole. I would, under normal circumstances, be suggesting you rush for tickets but, of course, there are none left. You will need to be quicker in future.