London's ground-breaking musical re-launches at the newly named and refurbished Sondheim on Shaftesbury Avenue
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Fantine and Jean Valjean
Into a magnificently refurbished theatre which was the Queen’s, now renamed for Stephen Sondheim, after 34 years of the original, comes the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables which I first reviewed at the Barbican in 2010. It has been the international touring production and owes less to the 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company revolving stage barricades and, presumably in royalties, to director and adaptors Trevor Nunn and John Caird. This production gets away from the scenic gasps of the 1980s into something which is more reflective of the terrible poverty about which Victor Hugo wrote, drew and painted. Being a revamped production, this may interfere with the future of its record as the longest running musical in the world but bravo to the producers for having the courage to revisit the staging and orchestration.
Les Misérables has long been my favourite West End musical although Hamilton and Parade come a close second. It is assuredly the one I have seen most. Les Misérables in approaching its 35 year run is reflected in its wonderful theatrical history and the fact that so many of the current cast have played other roles in the show in the past. For instance, the current Fantine, Carrie Hope Fletcher has acted Eponine as a child and Eponine as an adult and now matures as the most beautifully sung heroine, the tragic Fantine.
Les Misérables works immediately when you see it because the lovely tunes are cemented in your head because they are so repeated and of course now they are the subject of musical history. Eponine as an adult (Shan Ako) has a beautifully strong and clear voice but the Eponine costume looks odd on her and the red headdress and mackintosh conveyed more charlady than street urchin. Maybe this is the departure from the tradition of square faced Eponines?
For the first time I found myself thinking more about the redemptive mission Jean Valjean (Jon Robyns) sets himself, firstly after being released by the bishop (Rodney Earl Clarke) from a charge of theft and secondly, on discovering that because he turned away from her in his factory, Fantine was so reduced into desperate circumstances. She is trying to meet the excessive and fraudulent demands of the Thenardiers. The book is much more detailed on Jean Valjean’s subsequent crosses with the law and the number of children the Thenardiers have. Do you know who Gavroche (an impressive Billy Jenkins here)’s parents are? Josefina Gabrielle is Madame Thenardier and Ian Hughes is Thenardier; both performances bring the comic relief of the ghastly opportunistic pair. Little Cosette (Ellie Shenker on Gala Night) is a delight wielding a broom that is so much bigger than she is but with a strong voice for “There is a Castle in the Cloud”. I was less impressed with Lily Kerhoas as grown up Cosette and Harry Apps as Marius.
The almost impressionistic, before their time, paintings make the sets dark and brooding and there is a definite contrast between the countryside scenes and the crowded Parisian hovels. They do make you wonder what the revolution of 1789 achieved? The barricade is assembled from railings, bedsteads and street detritus and just moves in and out from the sides rather than around the revolve. During the battle, spotlight beams crisscross and illuminate the fighting.
One more thing, I’m not sure who decided to empty the set where Marius (Harry Apps) surveys where his friends used to meet, instead filling it with nightlights. Marius sings “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” to no furniture and is joined by the ghosts of his dead comrades. This production is much more like the 2012 film (and book) opening as it does in a prison galley with the prisoners rowing to a pulsating beat just like “Ben Hur”!
My review from 2010 stays true here. The sung performances from Jon Robyns as Jean Valjean and Bradley Jaden as Javert are particularly strong and I promise you will be impressed by London’s Delfont Mackintosh newest named theatre making sure that London and New York both have a theatre in common, the Sondheim Theatre.
At the End of the Day
I Dreamed a Dream
Who Am I?
Come to Me
Castle on a Cloud
Master of the House
Red and Black
Do You Hear the People Sing?
In My Life
A Heart Full of Love
One Day More
On My Own
A Little Fall of Rain
Drink with Me to Days Gone By
Bring Him Home
Dog Eats Dog
Empty Chairs at Empty Tables
Beggars at the Feast
Based on the novel “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo
Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with English translations by Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Rodney Earle Clarke
Carrie Hope Fletcher
Ellie Shenker/Martha Adams/Madison Warner
Billy Jenkins/Taye Matthew/Charlie Stripp/Logan Clarke/Che Grant
Ziana Olarewaju/Olivia Groisman Diaz/Delilah O’Riordan
Cellen Chugg Jones
Directors: Laurence Connor and James Powell
Orchestrations: Stephen Metcalfe, Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Brooker
Set and Image Designer: Matt Kinley
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound Designer: Mick Potter
Costume Designer: Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland
Musical Staging: Geoffrey Garratt
Projections: Fifty-Nine Productions, Finn Ross
Fight Director: Sam Behan
Musical Director: Chris Walker
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes with an interval
Booking currently suspended
51 Shaftesbury Avenue
London W1D 6BA
Tube: Leicester Square
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Sondheim Theatre
on 16th January 2020