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Theatre Review: Les Misérables ****

Michael Cox reviews the UK tour of the famed musical.

It’s hard to believe that Les Misérables is making its professional premiere in Glasgow this week, over thirty-five years after its London opening. The cultural behemoth has taken the world by storm: its songs are renowned and the production an audience favourite.

For the uninitiated, the musical is based on Victor Hugo’s 19th century indictment of the struggles faced by the poor in France. The dramatic action follows Jean Valjean, a recently released convict who breaks parole and takes a new identity to give himself a second chance. He succeeds but is constantly dogged by Inspector Javert, a relentless believer in law and order who has sworn to bring Valjean back to justice at all costs.

The story is as concerned with the many people Valjean encounters over a 17-year period, including the tragic Fantine and her orphaned daughter Cosette (whom Valjean becomes guardian), the villainous Thenardiers and a group of revolutionary students making a fatal stand for justice during the June Revolution in Paris.

It is a lot of plot to get through, even with a three-hour running time, and in truth the musical isn’t fully successful in making it all clear. Those without previous knowledge can struggle to follow who many of the characters are and what the revolution is all about (it is NOT the French Revolution, as many assume).

What it does have, to its credit, is a collection of songs that have true emotional power—songs which have been performed in numerous contexts over the years and have taken on a life of their own. It is the empathy and humanity in these songs which makes the piece work as well as it does and has secured its place as a paragon of modern culture. Any production of Les Misérables rises or falls on the execution of those key numbers. To its credit, the cast of the current UK tour are more than up to the challenge.

And yet there is still a fly in the ointment. While this production (originally conceived as a ‘new’ production celebrating its 25th anniversary back in 2009) is large on spectacle, it pales in comparison to the original staging. What was once innovative is now lavish but safe. There is nothing wrong with directors Laurence Conner and James Powell’s staging, but there is nothing overtly interesting about it either. It all looks great but tastes like a gourmet stew in need of a pinch of salt—functional but in need of more creative flavour.

However, it comes back to the songs, and there is no denying the power of hearing these musical theatre anthems live. It’s great that this is still making the rounds and is finding new audiences. What was pertinent in the era of Thatcher and Reagan has, sadly, proven itself to be even more timely, and the melodies and lyrics of hope above oppression have more resonance now than ever.

Performs at Glasgow Theatre Royal until December 31 2021 before continuing its tour. For further information about the production, go to its website.

Photo © Matthew Murphy

Tags: theatre

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