Do you hear the people sing? Well, they are singing in the West End again. Les Misérables has returned to its ancestral Theatreland home after six months away to find itself the beneficiary of a £15 million facelift and a snazzy name change. 51 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, is no longer The Queen’s Theatre; it’s the Sondheim.
The show that’s back running is no longer the original 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, either. It’s been replaced by a version developed 10 years ago for the musical’s 25th anniversary tour, directed by James Powell and Laurence Connor and designed by Matt Kinley. Shed a tear for the original’s iconic revolve.
The show still features several familiar faces, though. Bradley Jaden reprises his role of Javert, Jon Robyns graduates to Jean Valjean, and Carrie Hope Fletcher swaps Eponine for Fantine. The X Factor quarter finalist Shan Ako takes on Eponine, after playing the part in the concert staging that inhabited the Gielgud Theatre while renovation works took place next door.
But does Victor Hugo’s story of strife in 19th-century France still stir the heart? Does Powell and Connor’s reworked rendition stand up to the original? Will the West End’s longest-running musical resume its reign in triumph?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
When Les Misérables originally opened 35 years ago, the reviewers famously dismissed it as dreadful and doomed to fail. A record-breaking run, a multi-award-winning movie adaptation and an awful lot of humble pie later, they are back to cast their critical eyes over it again. And most of them acknowledge it’s a classic.
The show “remains a thrilling triumph” according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre ★★★★★), it’s “an absolute blinder” according to Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail ★★★★★), and is once again “the hottest ticket in town” according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★★★). “Mackintosh proves once again why he is the king of theatre,” writes Thea Jacobs (Sun ★★★★★).
This new version, previously seen on tour, is a bit different from its predecessor, though. It is “less showy than the original,” writes Miriam Gillinson (Guardian ★★★★★). “No longer a spectacle to lean back and admire but, instead, something more true and, ultimately, more moving. The battles, the poverty, the degradation and the danger: all feel more relevant and real.”
“There is little point in denying its political punch,” agrees Aleks Sierz (ArtsDesk ★★★★), while Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★★) admires how this “grittily rebooted” production provides “a timely sense of the harsh realities of the wealth divide”.
Not everyone is a fan. Clive Davis (Times ★★★) reckons it “remains grossly melodramatic, overlong and overloud”, and Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★★) says “if you overanalyse it there are still some very obvious problems”. It’s “weirdly structured”, “massively complicated”, “hideously sentimental” and “not a great musical for women,” he points out.
Most critics concur with Tim Bano (The Stage ★★★★), though. “It’s really quite magnificent,” he writes. “When you combine the new production with the renovated theatre, the experience is completely different from anything that came before.”
Much of the show remains the same. It’s the same story, written by Victor Hugo in 1862. It’s the same score, written by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil. It’s the same script, translated into English by Nunn and Caird. But it’s got a new direction from Connor and Powell, new design from Kinley, new projections from 59 Productions and Finn Ross, and new lighting from Paule Constable. And, the reviewers agree, it looks great.
The set and projections are particularly praised. They are “beautiful and haunting vistas” according to Gillinson, “evocative and attractive without being intrusive” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage ★★★★), and pack in “more scenery than the French Alps” according to Marmion.
“I first saw it a year ago, and the incorporation into the design of Hugo’s own paintings – misty, ethereal visions fit for a religion-steeped weepie – is inspired, ample visual compensation,” writes Cavendish. “Overall there’s a painterly quality, as well as a slick fluidity to the mise-en-scene; far from being too glossy, it’s darker and grittier than before.”
There’s also lots of love for Constable’s lighting. It “dances elegantly about the set” according to Gillinson and is a “thrilling accompaniment to the soaring romance of the music” according to Sierz. “As pure theatre, it is enchanting, like watching a romantic panorama of grimy, pre-Haussmann Paris come to life,” extols Davis.
Connor and Powell’s direction jettisons the recognisable revolve of the original production – something several critics lament – but much of Nunn and Caird’s creation remains and, on the whole, the reworking is welcomed by the critics. It’s “efficient and sharp” for Crompton and “extremely nimble” for Sierz, while for Bano, Connor and Powell the direction “makes it feel alive”.
Some remnants of previous productions still survive in the cast, too – Robyns as Jean Valjean, Jaden as Javert, and Fletcher as Fantine are joined by Ako as Eponine, and a slightly reduced supporting cast. There are a few slight shrugs of discontent, but overall, the ensemble impresses.
Robyns is especially widely lauded. He “mesmerises” Gillinson, with a voice of “great depth, strength and tenderness. He provides a “splendid, square-jawed hero” for Marmion, with a volume “Pavarotti would have been proud of”. And for Cavendish, he is “commandingly robust”.
“Valjean is a ridiculous role in many ways: young, gruff and bitter at the beginning, impossibly old, kind and wise by the end, but Jon Robyns makes it look easy,” says Bano. Jaden, meanwhile, is “suitably slippery” according to Gillinson and “gloweringly good” according to Cavendish.
Ako is accused of scene-stealing by several critics – she’s a “wonderfully assured Eponine” for Bano, “quite simply show-stopping” for Jacobs, and left Davis “spellbound”. Fletcher is “wonderfully sympathetic” according to Bano and “beautifully vulnerable” according to Jacobs.
It’s Les Misérables, that’s what it is – it scarcely matters what the reviewers write, so secure is the future footing of this giant musical juggernaut. They heap it with praise nonetheless – five stars from the Guardian, Telegraph, LondonTheatre, Daily Mail and the Sun, and four stars from almost everyone else. Only Clive Davis in the Times refuses to join the critical revolution.
The story has taken on new resonance in recent years – it’s depiction of division in pre-revolutionary Paris strikes something of a chord in 2020 Britain – and its condensed cast supply strong performances all round. Connor and Powell’s production is darker and grittier, too. Yes, the original, 35 year-old version has vanished, but make no mistake: Les Mis is back to stay.