Les Misérables – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Gail Schuster, July 2019
Somehow, despite being a keen theatregoer and a Francophile, I have managed to miss Les Misérables each time it has toured during the last 34 years. Yes, the ever popular and continually sold out musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg has been with us for that long.
The statistics for Les Misérables speak volumes about just how popular this musical has been: 70 million people have seen it in 52 countries, and it has been translated into 22 languages. This latest version by directors Laurence Connor and James Powell has been thrilling fans and packing theatres around the country. Currently it is the turn of the Alhambra theatre, Bradford to enjoy this dramatic and spectacular show.
Les Misérables is based on the eponymous book by talented French polymath Victor Hugo. The period of the setting is a particularly unstable one for France, with extreme poverty and a bourgeoisie growing increasingly rich at the expense of the workers. 1830 saw another revolution, barricades were erected in the streets of the capital, and although it finished with the abdication of the king, the situation for the working poor still did not improve as further rebellions continued to be crushed.
“Interplay of light and shade”
It is against this backdrop that the hero, the brutalised Jean Valjean, played brilliantly by Killian Donnelly, is released from prison after serving an unjustly long 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. He soon finds out that the ticket of leave he must display as an ex-convict marks him out and makes his assimilation back into society difficult. His transformation into a model citizen comes after the Bishop of Digne takes him in and saves him from an inevitable return to gaol.
Having become a factory owner, mayor and respected citizen he meets tragic, single parent, Fantine, performed by talented singer and actor Katie Hall. Moreover, following her death, Valjean takes over the care of her daughter Cosette. Unfortunately, he has a persistent, powerful adversary in the form of police inspector Javert, who does not believe in reformation and rehabilitation but rather crime and punishment.
A very strong aspect of the performance is the interplay of light and shade between these two characters, the goodness and kindness of Valjean and Javert’s rigid views of order. Nic Greenshields portrays the obdurate Javert well and was clearly a favourite with the audience who responded with enthusiasm to his wonderful rendition of ‘Stars’.
“Theatrical stroke of genius”
The immensely enjoyable ‘Master of the House’ scene, which takes part in the seedy inn run by the disreputable Thénardier (played tonight by understudy Lee Ormsby). The callous, calculating inn keeper and his wife also add a comic element to what is largely a bleak tale of human suffering. The cast is incredibly skilled and the list of credits that they have, in theatre, television and film is impressive.
Hugo, as well as being a successful writer – he also wrote Notre Dame de Paris amongst others – was a poet, a politician and an artist, and it is this last lesser-known talent that lent itself to be the inspiration for the projected backdrops created by 59 Productions. The projections were based on his beautiful paintings and drawings, usually produced in brown or black with a little white. These fitted in superbly with the overall feel of the story and misery of the characters.
The sets, devised by designer Matt Kinley, transformed quickly and flawlessly. The scene where the students and Marius, Cosette’s young man, are manning the barricade is particularly clever as it shows it from their perspective, leaving the audience to imagine the other side, aided by sounds and lighting, but we never see the aggressors. Another creative use of scenery during Javert’s demise was a theatrical stroke of genius and exceedingly well executed.
The novel Les Misérables is amongst the longest ever written and so very difficult to fit the details into a musical, even one lasting two hours and fifty minutes. Those unfamiliar with the story and the characters may not pick up some of the relationships between the lesser personalities, as the epic jogs along at a pace.
However, as a production it is superb; dramatic and enthralling, putting the viewer through an emotional mill of poignancy, humour, empathy, compassion and revulsion. Some of the more moving scenes left people visibly touched. At the end of the evening the cast received an enthusiastic, well-deserved standing ovation from a delighted Yorkshire audience.
Other images: Helen Maybanks