After so much time and so much tinkering, when it comes to Les Misérables the philosopher’s axe springs to mind. Every time it has been mounted – on Broadway, on tour, on Broadway again, on tour again – something has been chipped away: scenes trimmed, orchestra diminished.
This happened in a major way 10 years ago, when it got an overhaul for its 25th anniversary tour. With new direction, new set, the addition of projections and new lighting, the whole thing was grittier and sexier – and to be honest, it was nice to see life breathed into the old workhorse. It probably didn’t hurt that it was cheaper to run, too.
So, there was a certain amount of scepticism when Cameron Mackintosh announced that, when the Queen’s Theatre reopened as the Sondheim after its extraordinary £15 million facelift, he was putting in the 25th anniversary production and killing off Les Mis the First like it was Louis XVI.
That iconic Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, with designs by John Napier – gone. That hard-working revolve, the costumes, the gloom of it all, consigned to temps perdu.
After 35 years in the West End, Mackintosh decided it needed renewing. And now, in a stunning new theatre, with a massive marketing campaign designed to convince us a 10-year-old production is brand new, as well as the biggest advance it has ever had, Les Mis is born again.
And you know what? It’s really quite magnificent. When you combine the new production with the renovated theatre, the experience is completely different from anything that came before. While it is a huge shame the original production no longer exists, this ‘new’ version keeps the show alive. It’s angstier, angrier, with a little dose of psychological realism and crucially, considering it has been scaled back in so many ways, there’s no less sense of spectacle.
It only feels really reduced at one moment (albeit an important one): as everyone bellows their conflicting melody lines in the bombastic climax to One Day More, and the cast members do that juddering step-forward-step-back thing (couldn’t they have updated that?), for a second you do think: “Oh, is that everyone?”
But the rest remains epic, thanks in large part to Matt Kinley’s set and projection design. When Mackintosh discovered that Victor Hugo was a painter too, he and Kinley saw that as a route into the new design. Striking animations fill the back wall throughout, in the same smudged dark colours as Hugo’s work. But what Kinley has done, a really gorgeous effect realised by 59 Productions and Finn Ross, is have them morph constantly.
Just as the revolve gave a sense of constant motion and momentum to the original, so the projections do here. They also vastly improve the scene transitions, particularly in a stomach-lurching descent to the sewers. Importantly, too, the set and projections work seamlessly with Paule Constable’s lighting, which beautifully ranges from sewer dinginess to bright shafts of daylight through metal bars.
In the original, the stage essentially remained a blank, black canvas where locations were suggested rather than fully realised (the barricade being the exception – in fact, the original was far more impressive than this one). Here, on a smaller stage, huge bits of set seem to appear and disappear in instants. Whether it’s a factory floor, or a tenement block, all tattered rafters and rotting lumber, it always feels like we’re somewhere, rather than the void-like nowhere of the old version. That gives the show a sense of fullness and richness that more than compensates for the smaller cast.
Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell lean a bit too much towards a tense, strained atmosphere, where everyone has angry faces – angry Valjean, angry Enjolras, really angry Javert. They’ve added a lot more violence, too, again part of that edgy aesthetic they’re going for, which frankly adds nothing.
But mostly, they just make it feel alive. There are so many little human moments that would have been swallowed up in the previous version, and they’ve also tried to get under the skin of these characters a bit more. They feel more real, and less like archetypes.
Carrie Hope Fletcher makes a wonderfully sympathetic Fantine, and even manages to soften that ridiculous high note she has to belt out as she dies. Lily Kerhoas and Harry Apps are a suitably gooey Cosette and Marius – although Apps comes into his own post-barricade, his character visibly maturing, which makes for a very moving Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Shan Ako steals her scenes as a wonderfully assured Eponine.
Josefina Gabrielle, unrecognisable here, gives us a raucous, rasping Madame Thénardier, and props to Ian Hughes who had to jump in as Thénardier at the last minute when Matt Lucas had to withdraw, having jumped in when Gerard Carey had to withdraw. Hughes and Gabrielle tamper the more de trop tendencies of the Thénardiers, and prevent them from being too panto.
Valjean’s a ridiculous role in many ways: young, gruff and bitter at the beginning, impossibly old and kind and wise by the end, but Jon Robyns makes it look easy. The only one who doesn’t let us in psychologically, not until his breakdown at the end, is Bradley Jaden’s Javert. His stunning voice makes Stars a real highlight, especially combined with the vastly improved (spoiler) suicide scene, which is now properly show-stopping.
Swift, slick, sexy, sounding better than ever and constantly spectacular, the posters that flood Shaftesbury Avenue are, to be fair, pretty much on the money: this is a Les Mis for the 21st century. Les Mis est mort. Vive Les Mis!