This was my first time seeing Les Misérables and it left my emotions feeling as ragged around the edges as Jean Valjean’s tattered convict clothes.
There’s high drama, there’s crushing degradation, there’s a deeply moving score and, yes, there’s misery, but there’s also pockets of deep love and even devilish humour in this truly epic musical, which takes its audiences on a rollercoaster of emotions.
Cameron Mackintosh’s sweeping production of the Schönberg and Boublil musical is a stalwart of the West End stage, where it’s been selling out performances for more than 30 years. Its record-breaking run shows no sign of stopping, and rightly so: it’s a masterclass in classic musical theatre.
I was warned this is a long show – almost three hours to be precise – but you don’t notice the hours ticking by as you’re thrust into the world of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who breaks parole and is relentlessly hunted by arch enemy Javert.
Along the way he agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter Cosette, who brings the warmth of love into his life.
Hours of the musical become decades of time on stage as the turmoil of the characters’ stories is mirrored by the upheaval of the post-Revolution uprisings in Paris.
As France fights for its emancipation in this interpretation of the Victor Hugo novel, so too does our hero Valjean, played with real charisma by Dean Chisnall, as he escapes his convict past and forges a new life raising Cosette.
Chisnall has a commanding presences in powerful numbers such as Who Am I as he rises from a belittled convict to a benevolent factory owner, a factory where we meet Fantine, played by Carley Stenson, who really tugs on your heartstrings as the mother who resorts to desperate measures to provide for her child.
I’d heard I Dreamed a Dream countless times before but never in its intended musical where it’s every bit as devastatingly dramatic as I’d hoped it would be.
Life is not kind to Fantine – I did warn you about the misery – and ultimately she leaves her beloved daughter in the care of Valjean, an avuncular figure who raises her to become a lady with a zest for life.
Towards the end of Act One we meet the grown-up Cosette, played by Amara Okereke, who brings a real effervescence to the role as she practically fizzes with the first flushes of love when she meets Marius (Toby Miles).
The innocence of their love stands in stark contrast to the brutality of the barricades of the Paris uprising, scenes which are depicted with huge set pieces that make you feel as though the bullets are almost whizzing past your head. There’s also an impressive stirring of patriotism in the large group numbers such as At The Barricade.
Cosette is not the only woman to coo over Marius. Step forward Éponine (played powerfully by Elena Skye) who has to watch as her beloved woos another woman and her rendition of the famous lament On My Own is beautifully haunting.
Amidst the heartbreak there’s flashes of humour, with a sprightly performance of Gavroche, an Artful Dodger-esque street urchin, and his gloriously grotesque parents, Monsieur Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, who are a delight in Master of the House as they flaunt their ill-gotten gains.
The thread that ties this colourful collection of characters together is the redemption of Valjean as the musical moves towards its rousing finale of Do You Hear the People Sing?
A hopeful end to a tour-de-force of drama which will have you weeping on the floor one moment and clutching your chest with patriotism the next.
l Les Misérables is at Queen’s Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London. Tickets from https://www.lesmis.com/london
l Grand Central runs up to five services daily from Sunderland to London’s Kings Cross. For tickets, with no booking fee, and timetables visit https://www.grandcentralrail.com/