Sunday, 4 October 2009

Les Miserables means...

...the shabby looking. It does not mean "the miserables", it is another one of those irritating French phrases known as "false friends". Anyway, I saw the show in London yesterday. Here is an edited version of my review, which in full is five and a half pages long:

Ever since my first visit to the West End at the age of ten, I had been fascinated with the idea of Les Miserables. I fondly remember asking my parents why a show called miserable was the longest runnign musical in the world as a bus bearing an advert for the show rolled past us on Argyll Street. Fast forward five years, and here I was desperate to see the show that all my theatre pals rave about. I was worried, though, that I would see it, shrug, and mutter, "That was just another overrated hype of a musical," as heard escaping from my lips at the end of Wicked and Mamma Mia. Luckily, though, this was not the case, and I can now proudly say that I have gained a full undertsanding of why this show has sustained a 26 year run in the West End. I generally like to disagree with things that apeal to the masses, but in this case I simply can't. Maybe because this, to me, is such an unusual thing that would apeal to many people.

The score was compelling right from the overture and I now understand why Andrew Lloyd Webber wishes that he wrote this show. Before this I had never seen a sung throigh musical, and I think it helped to move this paticular story along exceedingly well.

The set was exciting. I usually have a less is more aproach to set, especially when it clutters up the stage and it is as though the set is giving the performance and not the actors. The set was lavish in many ways, but so simple in others. The design utilised trap doors, and the boxes, which were not available to audience members due to this. Obviously, the design and therefore the direction, has been altered drastically since the production first opened, because there is no way that in 1983 there would have been a conveyer belt on the stage. I l;oved this - it enabled the directors to show people's thoughts as well as two sceens happening simultaneously without the annoying method of lighting half the stage then lighting the other half.

Speakign of lighting, much of the show was very dark which helped to create atmosphere and give off the intended mood. The final major piece of scenery was a massive construction split into two halves which represented both the bridge and latter the battlefield when it veyr cleverly twisted. All the other scenery was flown in very subtley, and the way the cast were directed to make entrances around all this was nothign short of sublime.

This served as an introdiction to Trevor Nunn's work as a director for me. Of course it was co-directed with John Caird, who is also a well knwon director and has an equally impressive resume. I think it is the most complete direction I have ever seen of a stage show. The pair seemed to get the best out of each and every one of the actors. The collaboration with the set designers was flawless, paticularly in the battle scene. Overall there were no obvious niggling faults, and I found myself wishing that I was born thirty years ago so I could have seen the show at several different points through history as it developed.

The story was a lot simpler than I had anticipated. Neverthless, it was wonderful, and although the fact that SPOILER ** Valjean is Cosette's father SPOILER** was quite obvious from the beginning, it was still compelling throughout with new developments comign with every number. Unusually for an ensemble piece, the pivotal characters were all reasonably developed.

It was interesting the way that Valjean's story was woven into the beginnign through a couple of flashbacks, because this is the way that Boublil and Schoneberg's Marguerite (which I love) was told. I also liked the way the story was similar to Shakespeare plays in that there were lighthearted, perhaps unneccesary to the plot, scenes which broke up the serious action for the audience.

David Shannon was the most anticipated performance for me. With his long affiliation with the show, apearances in Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre, and of course his turn in the title role of Sondheim's thriller Sweeney Todd, i was hoping for something special. As Jean Valjean he certainly did not disapoint. His young Valjean was unintentionally sexy, innocent and naive, before undergoing a complete transformation into the older, stronger and wiser Valjean.One of the most powerful acting performances I have ever seen on the stage, Shannon sung th part perfectly and outshone most who shared the stage with him.

Rebecca Seale as Fantine was a tiny bit disapointing. Her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream was weak, but her acting was decent and believable. She definitely fared better singing the dialogue sections and in Act Two.

Martin Ball and Lorraine Bruce as M. and Mme. Thenadier were enjoyably comic, and all was note perfect.

Eponine was played by Helen Owen, who happened to be the understudy. It is worth noting that, for me, Helen gave a stand out performance. Just before the interval she became the first member of the cast to evoke emotion in me, and even her rendition of On My Own managed to make me forget all about the amusing Forbidden broadway parody of this song.

Cosette is quite a boring role, but Katie Hall gave a good performance which was unfortunately eclipsed by Helen, then later Alistair Brammer as Marius, everytime she was on the stage. Alistair was serviceable as Marius, growing into the role as the show progressed.

Mark Dugdale, the understudy, shone as Enjoras and, after the young Valjean, was easily the most attractive in the show. His movement and acting skills in the battle scene were one of the highlights of the show.

Overall, the ensemble was fantastic, diffusing between different situations effortlessly and making carefully choreographed moves seem natural. They were a tight unit and it was as though it was the first night of the show, A mention must now be made for the excellent costume and overall production design.

Les Miserables is now second on my top ten musicals list, and is only the second show to receive five stars!

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