My first ever CD was also the original cast recording of the show and little did I think then that Victor Hugo’s classic tale could possible be bettered… but on Friday night at Milton Keynes Theatre it certainly was!
Having seen The Glums – as it was first dubbed by the critics – numerous times over the years, Cameron Mackintosh’s latest touring adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s masterpiece has been uprated to a new level and it ensured every single person in the theatre’s 1438 seats appeared to be on their feet for a standing ovation.
Transported back to 1815, the show opens with rows men chained and shackled rowing a huge wooden prison hulk. Then prisoner 24601 is called forward and is finally paroled after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread – five years for theft, the rest because he went on the run – thus begins the epic tale of Jean Valjean, his trials and tribulations while the Les Misérables story unfolds in a truly dramatic fashion.
Valjean was superbly played by understudy Will Barrett on Friday night while his lifelong nemesis is the towering authoritative and tenacious Inspector Javert (Nic Greenshields). Meanwhile the story introduces so many different and quirky characters into their lives... from single mum Fantine (Katie Hall), her daughter Cosette (played by Paige Blankson and as a child by Zoe Akinyosade), to a loved-up Marius (Will Callen), Parisien street girl Eponine (Nathania Ong with little Everlyn Keily as her younger self) and Samuel Wyn-Morris as rebellious student leader Enjolras.
But it’s the fabulous songbook that makes ‘Les Mis’ such an enormous hit – from Valjean’s tearjerker Bring Him Home, to Fantine’s stunning I Dreamed A Dream and Javert’s emotional Stars. Then there’s Marius’ tearful Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Eponine’s moving On My Own plus the whole casts singing One Day More and Do You Hear The People Sing?… and all are still playing in my head!
Add to that the wonderful Thénardiers – the cackling Helen Walsh as Madame T and Ian Hughes as her crooked inn-keeper husband – their hilarious comedy rendition of Master Of The House (which features a phallic-type baguette) literally brings the house down!
In brief, the story goes something like this: following his release from prison and unable find work, Valjean is accused of stealing the Bishop of Digne’s silver but is then handed two valuable candlesticks by the forgiving priest.
Eight years pass and while he’s still on the run, he heads to Montreuil-Sur-Mer where he changes his name to Monsieur Madeleine and uses the valuable silver to become a factory owner as well as the proud town mayor. His employee Fantine is sacked by the Factory Foreman (Jordan Simon Pollard) for failing to accept his sexual advances besides the other workers learning that she has an illegitimate child by a man who deserted her.
Now forced to live in squalor on the streets, Fantine sells her body and her hair, and while a guilt-ridden Valjean learns of her predicament, when she becomes very ill he pays for her hospitalisation. Sadly she dies but he promises that he will rescue her badly treated daughter Cosette (Castle on a Cloud) from swindling publicans Monsieur and Madame Thenardier in nearby Montfermeil with whom she now lives.
It’s all high drama and emotion as Valjean ‘buys’ her from the inn-keeper but with Javert still hot on his heels, our hero is haunted both mentally and physically by the cruel police inspector. Naturally Cosette grows into a beautiful young woman whereupon she meets Marius and they fall in love in just one day amid the student uprising which leads to revolution.
It’s all deeply emotional and the barricade is assembled as the students singing Drink With Me To Days Gone By. Several youngsters take it in turns to play streetwise Paris urchin Gavroche while the brilliant Vishal Soni was on duty on Friday night. Gavroche also became the first casualty on the barricade after he had tipped off the students that Inspector Javert had shed his uniform and tried to infiltrate them.
Gavroche is a fabulous character straight out of a Dickensian novel and is perfect for any youngster to play, the Little People number adding so much to the story. While Javert is captured, he’s surprisingly released by Valjean when he had expected to be killed and, unable to live with the reality of what has happened, the policeman commits suicide by jumping from a bridge.
The death of Eponine in Marius’ arms is also a tearjerker (A Little Fall Of Rain) but as the rivers run with blood after the French army gun down all the young men manning the barricade, an injured Marius somehow survives and is rescued by Valjean who escapes with him into the Paris sewers where Monsieur Thénardier is robbing the dead bodies.
Once reunited with Cosette, Valjean realises that her and Marius are deeply in love and wedding bells finally chime as our hero makes his exit. However the dressed-up Thenardiers – now calling themselves a Baron and Baroness! – infiltrate the ceremony and repeat their earlier ‘Master’ number, only this time it’s Beggars at the Feast.
With Valjean now a very old man and close to death, he is reunited with the newly married couple and with a ghost-like Fantine and Eponine also on the scene, he passes away before the whole cast become reunited in the dream-like finale which reprises the rousing Do You Hear The People Sing?
The large cast play an assortment of factory workers, sailors, whores, drinkers, bystanders and party-going wedding guests who all help bring such joy to the story of Les Misérables.
But a special mention must be made of Matt Kinley’s fabulous set design. In fact every scene is like turning the pages of a well-thumbed book, they’re beautifully depicted as Victor Hugo's paintings seem to come straight from the artists' easel. The multi-storey staging is absolutely mind-blowing – from the deck of a huge ship to a bustling Paris street, a quiet French cornfield to that enormous barricade built by the rebellious students – all move quietly and seamlessly across the stage.
While I loved Tom Hooper's 2012 film – which starred Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne – and the popular BBC Television Les Misérables drama featuring Dominic West as Jean Valjean and David Oyelowo as Inspector Javert, in the hands of Will Barrett as Valjean and the rest of the cast, there’s really nothing like a live performance which really brought Victor Hugo’s wonderful story to life.
The show runs for two hours 45 minutes (plus a 15 minute interval) and with Schönberg's wonderful musical score and Boubil’s lyrics – translated into English and enhanced by South African-born wordsmith Herbert Kretzmer who sadly died in October 2020, aged 95 – this version of Les Misérables looks set to go on for another 37 years and is sure to play to packed audiences wherever it is staged.... just don't miss it!
Les Misérables plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 21 May with tickets from £13. General bookings: 0844 871 7615*; Access bookings: 0333 009 5399; Group bookings: 0207 206 1174, ATGTICKETS.COM/MiltonKeynes*
*Fees may apply. Calls cost up to 7p per minute, plus your phone company’s access charge