The man two seats away appears to be in some medical difficulty. He lurches to his feet and sets off for the aisle, but a few people along the row, he collapses. There is immediate help to hand, people stand and assist, the ushers arrive. The man and his female partner disappear into the foyer. The people he collapsed upon, visitors from Germanic climes, are highly agitated, standing, crouching, switching on torches and phones, looking for something which is so important it must be found right there and then – perhaps it is a Rolex watch or a golden ticket?
All the while this kerfuffle ensues, Little Cosette sings, quite beautifully, Castle On A Cloud and then the action moves on into Master of the House and the scene where Valjean confronts the ghastly Thénardiers to rescue Little Cosette. Yes, it was a long, irritating and noisy kerfuffle.
But it could not make a dent on the theatrical alchemy occurring on stage at the Queen’s Theatre where Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s 1985 blockbuster, Les Miserables, is in its 29th year and, as currently performed, full of vigour, talent and musicality. When last viewed, about two years ago, the production was in dire shape, miscast in many places and sadly lacking in detail, texture, vocal lustre or characterisation.
It is very different now.
In its original production, helmed by Sir Trevor Nunn and John Caird, with John Napier’s iconic set, David Hersey’s immaculate lighting design, Andreane Neofitou’s costumes and Kate Flatt’s musical staging, Les Miserables depended on the strength of the large ensemble, the ability of seasoned and younger performers to create an almost ever-changing smorgasbord of situations and character. Working with the strong, well trained RSC ensemble made that easier, but it was a key part of the success of that original production in London, then Broadway and then Sydney, Australia.
Les Miserables is not a show that just works; it is hard work and it requires versatility and skill from every member of the cast, a commitment to making every moment work as well as any other and a perfect balance between orchestra and cast.
What Les Miserables cannot survive, as the current Broadway production (not this production but the “revamp”) amply demonstrates, is an X-factor style approach to the score. When the show was first produced, none of I Dreamed A Dream, Stars, On My Own, Bring Him Home or Empty Chairs And Empty Tables were standards; none of them had been sung and sung and sung by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Susan Boyle. The truth is that none of them, in the context of Les Miserables as a stage show, is anything more than a moment of illumination for a particular character. Yes, performed well, any can stop the show; but stopping the show is not the point of any of them.
So, it is refreshing and genuinely exciting to discover that the 2014 cast, by and large, approach the show in the original way. This is a first rate, hard-working ensemble, all ages and types, who seamlessly create the various and dissimilar groups of French folk Valjean encounters on his travels: convicts, guards, farmers, factory workers, prostitutes, nuns, tavern patrons, students, beggars, thieves and aristocrats. There is no sense of similarity running through the multiple roles being played here – almost every actor creates a completely new persona in each scene in which they appear in a different role. This makes the detail, the complicated story, the through-line of emotional tight-rope walking bristle with sincerity, inventiveness and clarity.
If you have never seen Les Miserables, this is a good year to see it; if you have seen it, this cast provides fresh approaches and interesting nuance to scenes you think you know very well and characters you think can no longer surprise you.
This is clearest in the case of the Thénardier family and their cohorts. It is essential that the adult Thénardiers can be comic and monstrous at the same time; they can’t be caricatures, but they are full blooded, overripe vampires who can suck life from a slab of marble. The humour of Master of the House must be genuine, to break up the litany of sadness and horror which characterises the first 40 odd minutes of the show, but also to provide a fascinating juxtaposition to the cruelty and phlegmatic bargaining over Cosette which follows.
Tom Edden is easily the best Thénardier I have seen since Peter Carroll’s glorious performance some decades ago. He brings a fresh jollity to the role, but is unafraid to be unrelentingly malevolent and vicious when necessary. His eyes radiate the endless chancer’s gift for spontaneous advantage taking and his lanky form bends and twists to great comic effect as he robs his unwitting patrons. His scenes in the sewers are supremely uncomfortable.
Like a volcano of vocal power, comic timing and uncompromising physical assertiveness, Helen Walsh makes a startling, provocative and immensely enjoyable Madame Thénardier (Wendy Ferguson was off). The routines with Edden in both Master of the House offerings were perfectly played; they looked like they were happening for the first time, so utterly in sync were the pair. Both actors did not waste a second of stage time; each found everything there was to find – and more – in their work. Stupendous.
Helped by this solid work, Carolina Gregory (Carrie Hope Fletcher being off) made an excellent Eponine. Her revulsion at her own family’s behaviour is totally understandable, as is her attraction to Rob Houchen’s handsome Marius. She is eloquent in her silences and not afraid to sing softly to great effect. Because her character is so well established, her On My Own is very affecting and totally in character. No diva moment here, thankfully. But she saves the best til last: her final moments in Houchen’s arms were beautifully judged and highly charged. Only the hardest heart could fail to be moved by her performance here.
Houchen is easily one of the best performers I have seen tackle Marius, a part which, in the wrong hands, can be charmless and gormless. Not here. Houchen completely convinces as the idealist who suddenly, unexpectedly falls in love and whose life is changed forever because of that love. He has an easy stage presence, an excellent baritone and he can act. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is finely judged and beautifully delivered and he makes the final scenes with Valjean and Cosette work because he is entirely believable. His friendship and allegiance to Enjolras is also firmly established, as is to be expected, but, somewhat unusually, Houchen takes the time to make his relationships with the other students also real, especially Christian Edwards’ Grantaire.
As Enjolras, Michael Colbourne cuts a suitably dashing figure and there is no doubting his conviction about the need for revolution. But, vocally, he was slightly off in several sections and needs to work on his support to ensure clear, true lines of vocal power. He has plenty of charisma and style and I particularly liked his relationship with Gavroche and the sincerity with which he faced up to the reality that Eponine’s death signals.
The ensemble is full of stand-out performers, gifted actors with great voices. Especially good were Tamsin Dowsett, Jordan Lee Davies, Jeremy Batt, Bradley Jaden, Joanna Loxton, Jonny Purchase and Jade Davies. Slightly out of step with the rest of the cast was Adam Pearce’s over-fruity Bamatabois and Adam Linstead’s dull Bishop of Digne.
The three children in the cast, Freya Griffiths, Phoebe Lyons and Aaron Gelkoff, were very good, with Gelkoff’s Gavroche exceptional given his tender age (8!). Each was simply played and both little Cosette and Gavroche sang like old pros, but without the fakeness and insincerity that can often mar such moments.
The older Cosette is a difficult role. It looks easy enough as a concept, but the singing is demanding and the character requires deft, skilful technique to avoid a quagmire of sentimentality and dreariness. Emile Fleming makes a good fist of the role, but her upper register is too sharp and pinched and there is an unease about her stagecraft which is unsettling. She should take more solace from the strength of Houchen’s performance, ride with it rather than against it. For the key to Cosette is her devotion to Marius; without that being palpable and real, the second Act cannot work.
There is too much anger and aggression in Celinde Schoenmaker’s Fantine and the result is that it is difficult to care less about what happens to her. Additionally, she barks I Dreamed A Dream as if it was Rose’s Turn; it’s a misguided “star” moment. Schoenmaker needs to let the character channel the lyrics and the tune, not try to impress an imaginary panel of X Factor judges.
Nor was I convinced, on the whole, by Peter Lockyer’s Valjean, again a very angry customer in some sequences. Valjean is a beautifully written role and somewhat of an endurance test. It needs careful, considered pacing and, fundamentally, at the forefront should be Valjean’s care and concern for others: his sister’s son, Fantine, Cosette, Marius. He is propelled by a need to do good, to repay his debt to God. Bring Him Home is not about Valjean, it's about Marius and needs to be sung that way. Lockyer approached it as his big number, rather than as just an important realisation point along his character’s journey.
The latter section of the show saw Lockyear at his best, although whenever he shared the stage with David Thaxton’s Javert he lifted his game significantly. Vocally, his voice was not as sure as it could be; although both top and bottom were quite solid, the middle section of the voice, curiously, was inconsistent.
There were, however, no concerns of this kind with Thaxton’s thunderingly effective Javert. If you want to wipe away the appalling memory of Russell Crowe’s lamentable effort in the film, this is the tonic. Thaxton is perfect in every way in every scene – the best Javert I have seen since Philip Quast played the role in 1987.
His voice is beautiful and consistent in timbre and fullness from top to bottom. Every phrase is precisely, perfectly sung, totally in character. He drives the meaning through the power of the notes he judges exquisitely. Stars is electrifying and his Soliloquy a complete masterclass in dramatic musical performance. He is totally in character at every moment, and when he emerges from the shadows, or disappears into them, his presence either precedes or lingers. You never forget about this Javert. This is a world class performance.
Adam Rowe conducts the orchestra commandingly, although occasionally the pulse and underlying percussive sounds could do with greater emphasis and he permits extremely odd phrasing from both Valjean and Fantine on occasion. Overall, though, the music is very well serviced.
With Thaxton, Houchen, Gregory, Edden and Walsh in such spectacular form, and supported by such a gloriously gifted ensemble, any issues with the other principals are not enough to dim the experience.