A bit of background history of the show……
The novel Les Miserables is an epic book written by French Novelist Victor Hugo in 1862 consisting of a whopping 1,500 pages. Fine – as long as you have an attention span of a saint and a rainy afternoon to kill ! Otherwise many try to avoid it. The show was born in France in 1980 playing at a 3 month long arena version at the Palais De Sports in Paris and was based on the novel. Although its story line is very deep and meaningful in terms of musical theatre plots it hardly scratches the surface of the book. In 1983 it was snatched up by Trevor Nunn, John Caird and Herbert Kretzmer who planned to turn it into an improved theatre production of the French 1980 version.
In 1985 the musical interpretation premiered at the Barbican Centre for the first time before opening to the press on October 8th 1985. It starred the west end legend Colm Wilkinson as felon turned saint Jean-Valjean. It was bombared with negative reviews and labelled ‘The Glums’…not exactly a positive start. Ever since then it has been running in the West End and is the longest running musical of all time having been seen by millions of people.
The 25th Anniversary touring production….
At the end of 2009 it was announced that a 25th anniversary interpretation of the show was to be created. It seemed impossible that this masterpiece could ever be improved upon…I was so wrong. The main aim was to take the traditional version of the show out of its ‘black box’ this they did magnificently injecting colour into the production with beautiful new costumes. Who to cast..? this was the question. It was announced in the summer of 2009 that the tour would be headed by well respected west end performers John-Owen Jones and Earl Carpenter who are a dab hand at theatre having not only starred in the West End production of Les Mis but The Phantom of The Opera too. The next performer to head the tour was a surprise….. Gareth Gates, the then 25 year old from Bradford who came second in the 2001/2002 series of pop idol having lost out to Will Young, his infamous audition is well remembered…a young, nervous 17 year old with a debilitating stammer who could barely say his own name…but when he sang he sounded like an angel. Since then he has produced 3 albums however he decided to turn to musical theatre in 2008. He proudly took the lead role of Joseph in ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ at the Adelphi theatre in February 2009 wowing audiences and having women scream at him as except from a loincloth he was practically naked revealing a very impressive six pack. The cast had been rehearsing for only 6 weeks before the les mis tour opened and from the pictures posted to Facebook it looked like the rehearsals were intense.
Before the show began, I was sitting in the auditorium 10 rows back nervously waiting with anticipation to see what magic this new interpretation may behold. My heart skipped a beat as the powerful overture boomed throughout the auditorium, myself and other audience members began to cheer as the curtains opened reveling the haggard convicts rowing ‘The Orion’ their convict ship, this had never been done as the show normally begins in a prison in Toulon in 1815 which I think is rather dull. The chorus of voices were absolutely sensational and the opening song was sung with so much passion and power.
The show follows felon turned saint Jean Valjean who is given a second chance by the kind bishop of Digne . Valjean repays his kindness by stealing his valuble silver candle sticks and running away. When he is arrested and brought back to the house by two police officers the kind- hearted bishop lies on Valjeans behalf stating that he gave him the silver. Once the officers have gone the bishop states that he has ‘bought Valjeans soul for god’ and he must use the precious silver to become an honest man. Valjean becomes the owner of a factory and changes the lives of others including saving one.
The new cast …..
The role of Jean- Valjean was played by the magnificent John-Owen Jones who first played the role at the age of 26..the youngest actor ever to play the part. His voice is mind blowing with sensational Welsh tones. Jones’s vocal range is phoenominal, he somehow manages to age his voice along with his character as the show progresses. His interpretation of the bitter and twisted Valjean is second to none…how people can say that the original Colm Wilkinson is unbeatable is a statement which will always baffle me, however each to their own! His heart is softened throughout the show firstly by the guilt he feels for the first time after being forgiven and secondly after accidental mistakes.
Owen-Jones was strongly supported by Earl Carpenter who played the battle axe inspector of police Javert who lets religion rule his heart leading to his eventual downfall as he is obsessed with finding Jean-Valjean who escaped his parole and is now on the run “The Confrontation” was a mind-blowingly powerful duet between the two of them which was recieved with yet more cheers from the excited audience .
Fantine was superbly played by Portugese jazz singer Madalena Alberto her version of ‘I dreamed a dream’ moved me and the majority of the audience to tears. Susan Boyle’s performance of the song on Britains Got Talent in 2009 didn’t even come close. Her portrayal of the unfortunate Fantine who has been crulley let down by her lover and left with a child Cosette who she cannot afford to keep was heartbreaking. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the theatre in her final scene as her desperation and dispear was made quite clear through her clever acting.
The show is often labelled as a ‘morbid’ one however some fun was injected into the production by Geordies Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot who were ingeniously cast as the repulsive Thenardier& Madame Thenardier . There was an obvious spark between the two of them making a perfect evil double act. I remember laughing out loud during a scene at their inn during the song “Master of the House” where Thenardier stole the shoes of a ‘blind’ customer swapping them with his own battered ones! Their crimes worsen throughout the show…one leading to a vital discovery at the penultimate scene.
Gareth Gates made the role of Marius his own, portraying his character Marius , a love struck university law student turned revolutionary as slightly nerdish yet sweet. His acting was fantastic..his 6 months training at RADA (Royal Acadamy of Dramatic Arts) certainly paid off . He somehow brought an elegance to the character. Gates’s voice has matured dramatically particularly over the last two years- he still looks ridiculously young! His solo Empty Chairs at Empty tables. which he delivered with power and passionate emotion was heart wrenching yet magical when the ghosts of the dead revolutionaries carried lit tea lights onto the stage and blew them out at the end of the song to symbolise their death. He sang beautifully with co stars Katie Hall who played a young, pretty Cosette with quite a shrill yet impressive voice and Rosalind James who played the rough and feisty Eponine Thenardier who gave the role a bluesy edge with her amazing R&B voice. A little Fall of Rain was heart breaking… the duet between Eponine and Marius when Eponine is dying. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the theatre as it was so dramatic and moving.
Jon Robyns who is well known for playing Marius in the West End production and Rod & Princeton in Avenue Q , joined the cast as the bold barricade leader Enjolras, sporting a shoulder length blonde wavy wig which he pulled off surprisingly well. Other critiques stated that his voice was too weak for the part however, I was very impressed. He certainly gave Oliver Thornton an run for his money who I saw play the role giving an ‘airy fairy’ performance in the 2004 London production. The whole ensemble were strong vocally, the final song was phoenominal leading to an encore and a full audience standing ovation on both times that I saw the production.
Another dramatic change to the show were the beautiful costumes designed by Adrienne Nefetou which were almost regency style and more colourful than the dull black, brown and grey tones lifting this new production out of the ‘black box’ which the show usually is. As the show was a tour it was slightly more limited in terms of props, for example there was no revolving stage or suspended bridges which the Original London production has to offer. Instead there were amazing CGI 3D holographic projections added which gave this new production a cinematic feel. The sewer scene in particular completley took my breath away when John Owen Jones emerged from the projection carrying Gareth Gates after he had been injured after the epic final battle scene!
Another positive point was the lovely cast who were willing to sign autographs for fans as they walked out the stage door. It added to the excitement at the end of the show waiting to see who would emerge from the stage door. I was lucky enough to meet John Owen Jones, Earl Carpenter, Lynne Wilmot, Ashley Artus, Jon Robyns and my favourite cast member.. the lovely Gareth Gates. I still cannot get over how ridiculously young he looks. He is so tall and has the most beautiful brown eyes that I have ever seen. It was such a privalage to meet him as I am a massive fan. Unlike most celebrities he is always willing to spend time with his fans and have a picture taken with them. This I am very grateful for. The cast signed my poster and my mum and I left absolutely beaming after such a memorable day.
By Sophie Bowns