The nearest I have come to anything by the author of the book on which this musical was based is as a foodie. Pork Chops Victor Hugo was one of my specialities and always got a good reaction. The one afforded to Les Misérables was not too shabby either, with the audience in raptures at the end.
The original book is 1,400 pages long and took him 30 years to write, which would account for the running time of the musical at just under three hours. Needless to say, it is a pared down version. Although written as a novel, Hugo did take part in civil uprisings and manned the barricades, which would account for the intensity of the work.
Dean Chisnall as Jean Valjean
As you would expect, the story is intricate and involved, even the synopsis in the programme comprises far more words than I propose to use in this review. The gist is that Jean Valjean, who has served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child, decides to change his name and start a new life on the straight and narrow, after being shown an act of kindness by a bishop, even though this means that he breaks the terms of his parole. Although he has changed his name and become a respectable factory owner and mayor, a police inspector named Javert has rumbled him and pursues him through the rest of the piece even infiltrating the student group, which Valjean has joined, in revolt on the barricades to get his man. Eventually Javert commits suicide unable to live with not being able to reconcile the way in which he views compassionate Valjean as a loathsome criminal.
Nic Greenshields as Javert
There are several love interests, both physical and platonic, and the aforementioned political unrest driven to the edge of revolution by the students. I had always thought that it was based on the French Revolution but the action doesn’t begin until 1815 so a bit late for that. I now find out that there was this second insurrection in 1832. History was never my strong point!
If you are that interested in the minutiae of the piece then I suggest you plough through the 1,400 pages of the book, or do as I did and look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Mis%C3%A9rables_(musical) I realise it is a cop out but when you look at it you will see my predicament.
Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh as M et Mme Thénardier at a posh ball after making a fortune on their ill-gotten gains.
The musical, written by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, is in the form of an opera with all of the words sung rather than any being spoken. I must admit to getting hopelessly lost at points when the words were rattled out so quickly I couldn’t keep up. In common with actual opera, there are a lot of set pieces, which are wonderfully staged and performed. There are the beautiful love songs and ballads such as I Dreamed a Dream and Bring Him Home, both of which received huge applause. The comedy routines, mainly by M et Mme Thénadier who operate a bawdy house and outlet for stolen goods, were brilliantly executed and put me very much in mind of the Fagin numbers in Oliver, especially as they were sung with Cockney accents. Finally there were the big ensemble pieces, notably the Finale which made you want to leave the Grand Theatre and storm the Civic Hall, which we would have done except that it was a bit chilly. Had we been in possession of thick jumpers, sensible shoes and a flask of tea, Leeds might have been razed to the ground!
The set designs were superb, as were the special effects. We were transported from the barricades to the sewers of Paris in a split second by imaginative use of back projection and deft scenery shifting. Javert’s suicide scene where he throws himself from a bridge, he must have been in Seine, left me wondering how on earth they did it.
I do realise that there is an energy crisis but this is the darkest show I have ever seen, the only bright illuminations were those of spotlights whose beams intersected on a person in the barricade as they met their demise. I presume a reference to being caught in the cross hairs of a gun sight.
The singing and movement by all concerned was amazing as was the performance of the orchestra.
By seeing Les Mis, as we showbiz types call it, I feel as though I have taken another step towards qualifying as a theatre writer. I doubt I will ever properly make it as I can’t see myself sitting through Cats! Actually, real showbiz types refer to the show as The Glums, after the feature in the 1950s weekly radio comedy programme Take It Form Here, but don’t tell anyone I let the cat out of the bag.
Les Misérables runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 10th December. For more information and tickets go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/les-miserables/ but be quick as there is limited availability.
Photographs by Danny Kaan and feature image provided by Leeds Heritage Theatres.