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Lyn Gardner: We can cherish beloved shows such as Les Miserables, but let’s not resist change

When I last checked the change.org website, 1,700 people had signed a petition calling for Cameron Mackintosh to retain the original West End production of Les Miserables [1] after news it would close this year, to be replaced by the touring version.

By the time you read this I suspect there will be many more signatures protesting the fact Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s production, with its distinctive design by John Napier making superb use of the revolve, is to be replaced. London is currently the only place in the world where you can see the original production.

I was among those who failed to prize Les Mis back in 1986 (it took the passion of my children’s childminder to make me appreciate it) but I always liked the design. I have not seen the touring version so don’t know if the petitioners are right when they say it is inferior to the original production.

But what I do know is that times change, and shows need to change too, however much affection we have for previous stagings. There is a production in amber running in the West End and it is called The Mousetrap [2] and very well it serves too. Although of course its purpose now has very little to do with theatre and everything to do with tourism. Nothing wrong with that.

Yet, I suspect those instincts in theatre to keep things just as they are – whether the way it is made, institutions are run and staffed, or indeed how productions from the past are remounted – are mistaken. We need to know our history, so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel or repeating past mistakes, but a theatre too much in thrall to the past is a dead theatre.

I’m not suggesting we should sling out the old for the sake of it, but neither should we resist change because the past is more comfortable and cosier. There is currently a great play at the Donmar Warehouse: Lynn Nottage’s mighty Sweat [3], which warns against ignoring change and how that leads to nostalgia for the past, often a past that may have never existed.

‘But isn’t it better to hold a great production in your head forever rather than try to set it in stone for future generations?’

The comments from people about why they signed the petition demonstrate they hold huge affection for a show that maybe they saw on a trip to London a few years back. But changing the production they saw and loved doesn’t tarnish their memory of it. They can still cherish it.

I may be wrong, and the touring production possibly does not live up to its London sibling, but it got a four-star review in The Stage [4] just before Christmas with the staging and projections singled out for praise. Could it be that a new staging might have greater appeal to younger audiences who were not even born when Les Miserables began its West End run?

After all, however great the original production might be of any show, it will inevitably start to look dated when seen through fresh eyes. Clearly, Jerome Robbins’ original direction and choreography for West Side Story was ahead of its time, but when I saw it, time had caught up with it. Which is why it’s great that the Royal Exchange Manchester’s new production opening in April will – for the first time – have new choreography courtesy of Aletta Collins and be directed by Sarah Frankcom [5].

Petition launched to save the original production of Les Miserables in London [1]

If we didn’t embrace change in the theatre, every Shakespeare production would be staged in Elizabethan ruffs with candlelight (which of course is still done at the Globe), Chekhov would be done mournfully, set in the midst of birch trees and 20th-century musicals would never be restaged in pared-back, more intimate versions.

There are productions I thought were wonderful when I was young and many of them probably were. But would those same productions stand the test of time now? Particularly when design has advanced so greatly and directors and designers have so many more tools at their disposal.

If Napier was designing Les Mis now would he do it as he did it in 1985? Almost certainly not. Would Peter Brook and designer Sally Jacobs 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream look so radical now. No, but that doesn’t negate how radical it was in its day. Nothing takes away from that.

I am not, for a moment, trying to negate the affection that those signing the petition feel for the original production of Les Miserables. But isn’t it better to hold a great production in your head forever rather than try to set it in stone for future generations?

But I may be out of tune with our hunger for nostalgia. I thought Julie Andrews was insane to recreate the 1956 Broadway production of My Fair Lady in Australia in 2016. But critics loved it and audiences flocked, making it Sydney Opera House’s bestselling show ever. It just goes to show, nostalgia sells.