Odd Event Reviews... 'Les Miserables', the Musical!

Andy Simpkins reviews the theatrical oddity that is:"Les Miserables", Queens Theatre, London, August 14th 2004.

"Damn their warnings!-Damn their lies!-They will see the people rise!"

This rousing line is sung with gusto by an assembled cast of actors who appear in simply the best musical I have seen in years. In the wake of the French Revolution, when a newly established monarchy is in a power struggle with the legacy of Napoleon, republicanism and student radicalism, a tale is told that involves all the ingredients of a damn fine tale. Despair, hope, struggle against insurmountable odds, unrequited passion and the ever-present optimism of the human spirit.

"Les Miserables" is a musical I had been itching to see for quite a few years now and as I normally treat myself to go and see a musical on my birthday, 'Les Mis' featured highly on my list as I have just hit the big 4-0 and wanted to see it in with a bang. I have heard nothing but favourable reviews about it and also, with it being one of London's West End longest running musicals, it only served to whet my appetite even further.

For those of you who have only passing knowledge, 'Les Mis.' is based upon the epic novel by ex-patriot Victor Hugo;a Frenchman who participated in the events that the musical is based upon and later on, fled France to seek asylum in Belgium and later on, in Brussels, Jersey and then Guernsey. He was a supporter of Napoleon III but soon became disillusioned by him and his ambitions. As Hugo once wrote scathingly:"To think we have had the Great Napoleon and now we must have the little Napoleon.". These comments hastened his departure from France as they were deemed slightly inflammatory to the present regime.

"Les Miserables" has appeared in various incarnations over the years, both on stage and on celluloid but I wanted to catch it when it had just made the move from London's Palace Theatre to a neighbouring theatre, namely The Queens Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.

Myself and my co-editors on this site; namely Adam and Keith found ourselves loitering with intent at Crawley railway station. However, due to the vagaries of Network South Central, our train up to London Victoria was delayed by 20 minutes or so and I was starting to get slightly uneasy as London theatres do have a strict policy of not allowing any Johnny-Come-Latelies into the main theatre until a convenient break in the performance. This normally means the interval halfway through a performance and I was rather reluctant to see only half a musical, given the exorbitant prices we had paid for our tickets.

Dame Fortune must have been flashing her National Health false teeth at us that afternoon as we managed to catch a rapid express up to London Victoria where we were unceremoniously spewed out onto the platform and then on to the Tube where we made record time over to Tottenham Court Road underground station where we were gently deposited on the heaving streets of Central London to take Shanks Pony down Shaftesbury Avenue to the Queens Theatre.

Panting heavily and sweating profusely after a forced route march down Shaftesbury Avenue, we finally settled in our seats just in time as the lights went down and the opening chords of the orchestra started up.

The Queens Theatre is very much like the majority of theatres in Londons West End. Starting off from humble beginnings, it was built and expanded on in Victorian times and has a plethora of gilt-lined fixtures and an elaborately painted and decorated ceiling featuring cherubs and gentlemen with horns on their bonces and tight-fitting furry trousers. Unlike the Haymarket Theatre where the Staggering Stories team went to see 'When Harry Met Sally' (see Adams earlier review.), this ornately decorated ceiling had no desire to fall down on top of its audience and stayed resolutely in place for the duration of the performance.

In a nutshell, the plot concerns the life of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, who was imprisoned in harsh conditions for the trivial crime of breaking and entering and stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed some starving relatives. Upon his release, he tries stealing some silverware from a priest who took him in after his release from prison. His nemesis who crops up from time to time in the musical;a New Republic police inspector called Javert, appears in order to arrest him for breaking his parole. The priest intervenes and says to Javert that the stolen silverware was a gift to Valjean in order to him to sell so he could get back on his feet in society.

Humbled by the priests kindness, Valjean swears that he will be a reformed character but Javert, sworn to uphold the law, says that he will pursue Valjean, who he considers to be a parole breaker, to the ends of the earth. Thus, the reformed Valjean becomes a fugitive from Javerts wrath. I will not say anymore about the plotline. Go and see the the show for yourselves. Believe me, you will not be disappointed. I can firmly say that this is the best musical I have seen so far and I have been to see quite a few. I only got the musicals bug about 3 or 4 years ago but I am making up for lost time.

Other characters who are pivotal in the plotline are:

Fantine: a young woman with an illegitimate daughter called Cosette. She has fallen on hard times after the manager of the factory where she worked found out that she had a daughter out of wedlock and was thrown out onto the streets and was forced into prostitution as a way of supporting herself and of raising money for her daughter, Cosette.

Cosette: Fantine's daughter who becomes Valjean's ward after the tragic death of her mother in a paupers hospital

Marius: a young Parisian student who falls in love with Cosette when they meet by chance when Valjean and Cosette arrive in Paris on their journeying around France.

Eponine: A young street urchin girl and the daughter of the disreputable Thenardiers who has an unrequited passion for Marius.

Gavroche: Another street urchin who lays down his life for the cause of the young revolutionary students and finally:

Monsieur and Madame Thenardier: The shabby, scruffy, light-fingered, rogue-ish but likeable couple who run a disreputable inn. Forever watering the wine, shortchanging their customers and putting all sorts of unmentionable things in the food they serve to their unsuspecting customers. They are the guardians of Cosette while Fantine is toiling away in the workhouse. They treat the infant Cosette like a skivvy and are forever bossing her about. They appear throughout the story and as the saying goes:"A leopard never changes its spots". This pair finally achieve their life long ambition of joining the nouveau riche but still manage to remain gaudy and crass with it. Strangely enough, when they were taking their curtain call, they received one of the biggest standing ovations of the entire cast.

The songs were uniformly entertaining and ones that stuck in my mind were the following:'The Work Song', sung at the very start of the musical. The assembled members of the chain-gang that Valjean was an unwilling member of shuffled onto the stage, weighed down by years of hard labour and the none-too-gentle ministrations of the prison guards and delivered a song devoid of hope that they would ever see the light of day or to breathe in the air of the outside world.

'Bring Him Home' was another heart-rending plea, this time delivered by Jean Valjean, now a man in his twilight years, beseeching God to deliver a seriously wounded Marius from the upheavals that were gripping Paris. I could not help but notice that the actor portraying Valjean adopted a very strong baritone singing voice that was very reminiscent of Michael MacDonald of the Doobie Brothers. 'Master Of The House' was a very tongue in cheek song, delivered with impish glee by Monsieur Thenardier and his common-as-muck wife. He sang joyfully about fleecing his patrons in his inn, picking their pockets and watering the wine down with certain 'liquids'. A point he graphically demonstrated at one point by turning his back on the audience and pretending to relieve himself in a wine-jug before selling it on to an unsuspecting customer.

Madame Thenardier had her turn stage-front and sung about her husband who she sees as a lazy slob with not much 'down there' to keep her happy and bemoaning the fact that she could have had her pick of the men when she was younger but got lumbered with him instead. This shabby duet was backed up by members of the cast, portraying patrons who raise their glasses and cheered them on at every turn. 'Empty Chairs At Empty Tables' sees Marius mourning the death of Valjean who he came to look upon as a friend and mentor.

On a further note, I must tip my hat firmly at the set designers and lighting technicians. The set designers did a sterling job by creating 2 12-foot high mobile set pieces to go either side of the stage that could be raised, lowered or shifted through 360 degrees to make them look like a down at heel Parisian back street, the barricades where the students make their ill-fated stand against the authorities and a bridge over the River Seine where Javert, literally drowning in the depths of despair, sorrowfully meets his end.

Another novel sight I saw for the first time was a section of the stage that revolved so it could create the illusion of the actors moving or shifting to different scenes within a song. A very good idea but for some strange reason, it reminded me of the revolving platform on the 'Ribena Rapids' ride at Thorpe Park in Surrey where you have to walk onto a large revolving platform, some 50 feet in diameter, to access the boats you took for the ride.

The lighting and sound technicians did excellent work using shutters built into the backdrops, overhead spotlights, sound effects and other means at their disposal to show such places and events such as a gun battle between the students and the authorities, the sewers of Paris, the grounds of Valjeans home and other places shown throughout the musical.

On that note, I will conclude my review. If I say any more, I will be giving too much away. Go and see it for yourselves. I was very fortunate in getting tickets for the weekend I wanted so near to my birthday even though I had to pay through the nose for the tickets but I feel it was a small price to pay for seeing such a spectacle.

As the assembled cast sang:"One more dawn-One more day-One day more!". A lot can happen in a day as some of the musical portrays and they certainly did so, and with style...