One would imagine that a musical that has been beloved for 37 years gives its artists a simple memo — “Throw yourself into the roles you perform and sing as if you yourself are going through each and every emotion of your character on stage”. Unfortunately, for Les Misérables on tour, it seemed like the memo had fallen by the wayside on the M6 until it was dutifully retrieved and delivered by the interval.
The story of Les Mis (as it is affectionately called) consists of various characters faced with various personal and moral quandaries. Jean Valjean tries to reconcile his present with his past as a convict. Marius attempts to find a middle ground between love for Cosette and his duty to the revolution. Fantine finds herself torn between providing for her daughter and sacrificing herself in the process. Eponine is pulled apart by her unrequited love and her devotion to the one she loves. Javert faces the dilemma of overturning his longstanding belief in the nature of men when confronted by his professional responsibility. And all of this is set to the backdrop of a cold, dark, grimy France where women have to sell themselves to feed their children, where the desperate actions of a man wishing to live are met with the full force of the law and where young idealists are martyred on the mount of their fellow humans’ suffering as they strive to realise a different, kinder future. Needless to say, there is enough fodder here to fill a tome or a cavernous hall with music and acting that explores the entire gamut of human emotions.
Despite that, the first half of Les Misérables packs all the emotional heft of watching white paint dry on a wall. The only respite from this ordeal comes in the form of the Thénardiers and the joint effort of the company in the choruses. For a good hour and a half, this West End production sounded like a show that blew all its money on lights, costume and stage design and then scraped together pennies to rent the sound system from the local primary. And make no mistake, this is a production where the seats in the back rows of the stalls were going for £85 apiece.
Thankfully, there were other things to derive solace from. Most notably, the set (designed by Matt Kinley), that in conjunction with Paule Constable’s lighting had us right in the middle of claustrophobic slums, seedy inns or in bright, airy and picturesque cafes where the sunlight creeps in through the cracks in the boards and douses the young revolutionaries in an ethereal aura. Amongst the performers, there was the delightful duo of Helen Walsh and Ian Hughes as the Thénardiers and Samuel Wyn-Morris playing Enjolras, who, despite the sound snafus were still able to still rouse laughter and fervour in the audience.
The second half, unlike the first, is pure West End magic. The singing magically improves, the music reverberates through the rafters and through your bones and as the crescendo is approached, it becomes impossible not to sing along as you hear the people on stage sing. It’s in the second half when the show really comes together and becomes something greater than the sum of its parts and for a brief moment, you glimpse what makes it one of the foremost productions on the West End.
Les Misérables runs at the Lowry (Lyric Theatre) until 23rd April before continuing its UK and Ireland tour until January 2023.