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Les Miserables review at Barbican London

Cameron Mackintosh’s global productions of Les Miserables have already made history wherever they’ve played, with the London original holding the record for the longest-running West End musical of all time. Now, as that production is about to mark its 25th anniversary, the show is making history once again as the first musical to ever receive three separate, but simultaneous, London stagings.

On October 3, there will be an all-star concert staging at the 02 Arena, and while it continues to play triumphantly at the Queen’s, it has also now returned to the Barbican Theatre where it originally premiered in 1985 in a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

But while you can take the RSC out of the Barbican, a building they vacated some years ago, can you take the RSC out of Les Miserables? That has finally happened in this new incarnation, first launched as a more streamlined touring version of the show at Cardiff earlier this year. It has been restaged by former Les Mis cast members turned directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, and redesigned by scenic and image designer Matt Kinley, who had been an associate to original designer John Napier on previous incarnations of the show on Broadway and in Holland.

Those are not the only connections to the previous production. Andreane Neofitou’s costumes are also recreated, and several of the principals have also appeared in the show before, including John Owen-Jones as Valjean and Katie Hall as Cosette, plus – in different roles to the ones they’ve played in the past – Earl Carpenter (now Javert) and Jon Robyns (now Enjolras)

So there’s a sense of some continuity, but also significant changes, not least to its physical scale, with beautiful painterly projections (inspired by Victor Hugo’s own paintings) replacing some of the larger setpieces – the epic revolve, in particular, has gone.

Instead, the show comes with a new propulsive momentum, uninterrupted by lumbering set changes. That usefully refocuses the emphasis on the narrative rather than the spectacle. But if the scale has shrunk a bit, there’s nothing small about John Owen-Jones, who brings the same serious dignity and vocal heft to Valjean as Colm Wilkinson originally did. As Valjean is relentlessly pursued by Earl Carpenter’s Javert for a crime he committed long ago and has already served time for, Claude-Michel Schonberg’s music once again offers a soaring accompaniment.

Gareth Gates, Madalena Alberto and Rosalind James lack the individuality of original cast members Michael Ball, Patti LuPone and Frances Ruffelle as Marius, Fantine and Eponine respectively, and can’t always resist the urge to pitch their power ballads into X-Factor styling.

But this remains a show with more than a little extra. It’s thrilling to see it back where it all began.

Production Information

Barbican, London, September 14-October 2

Claude-Michel Schonberg (music), Herbert Kretzmer (lyrics), Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (original French text), additional material by James Fenton. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Cameron Mackintosh
Laurence Connor, James Powell. Original production adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird
Cast includes
John Owen-Jones, Earl Carpenter, Madalena Alberto, Jon Robyns, Gareth Gates, Ashley Artus, Lynne Wilmot, Rosalind James, Katie Hall
Running time
2hrs 50mins