Les Misérables: reworked for the modern audience

The iconic musical is just as impactful in its reworked guise as the record-breaking original.

The longest-running musical in the world hardly needs any introduction. Despite this, Les Misérables originally debuted at the Barbican Centre in 1985, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and adapted by Trevor Nunn and John Caird from the original French version. Transferring first to the Palace Theatre a few months later and then in 2004 to the Queens Theatre, Les Misérables most recently endured change while the Queens Theatre was refurbished into the Sondheim Theatre. During this time, a Concert version of Les Misérables played next door in the Gielgud Theatre. The news, however, that upon its return to the Sondheim, Les Misérables would no longer be its original RSC iteration, but rather the 2009 UK Touring Production was met with some backlash from devoted fans.

As it transpired, the COVID-19 pandemic made the transition from the original production of Les Mis to its updated version a little rockier than predicted. Finally opening the new version on 18 December 2019 at the Sondheim, with an official opening night of 16 January 2020, Les Mis was forced to close just two months later on 16 March 2020. From December 2020 until September 2021, the staged concert version was performed in order to easily comply with governmental regulations on social distancing, which enabled the restaged version to once again debut on 25 September 2021.

Despite holding the accolade as the longest-running musical on the planet, very few musicals follow the same narrative structure as Les Mis – perhaps for good reason. The scope of the story is so sprawling and epic, entailing a wide array of central characters that this would almost certainly be revised during workshop stages were Les Mis to have debuted to a modern audience. Even with the through-line of Jean Valjean and his determination that everybody is capable of change, the sheer amount of time devoted to disparate characters such as Fantine, as well as incorporating the French revolution would doubtless leave audiences feeling confused and overwhelmed.

For those readers who are not experts of musical theatre, Les Mis tells the tale of Jean Valjean (currently Jon Robyns, with Luke McCall as alternate) after his release from prison. Having served nineteen years for the crime of stealing bread for his sister’s ailing child, Valjean is determined to start afresh but suffers stigmatisation as a result of his status as an ex-convict. Breaking his parole, Valjean rebuilds his life and ultimately becomes a mayor. Constantly dogged by pious, determined police officer Javert, Valjean’s life on the run intertwines with a host of other characters, including Fantine (Chanice Alexander-Burnett), a character who desperately needs money to care for her young daughter Cosette and goes to increasing lengths to secure it as a result of Valjean’s negligence.

Almost a decade later, the story is besieged by wide-eyed idealists, as Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette (Charlie Burn) falls in love with Marius (Harry Apps), a student revolutionary, who is completely oblivious to his friend Éponine’s (Sha Dessi) affection for him. While the downtrodden of France start to man their barricades, Valjean struggles with the weight of his secret and his desire to shield Cosette from harm, yet also enable her to live a happy, fulfilled life.

Even though it has been a mainstay of the West End since its debut, reviews for Les Mis were less than glowing initially. Though being a long running show is hardly an indication of quality – both Mamma Mia and The Phantom of the Opera are undeniably acquired tastes – Les Mis‘ cultural reach is considerable, with most adults doubtless knowing at least one of its brilliant songs. Similarly, most of the score is undeniably the soundtrack to casting directors’ nightmares, hearing over-indulgent renditions of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Stars” or “On My Own” ad nauseum on a daily basis. What Les Mis has in spades however is a litany of massively emotive songs which play the audience’s heart strings like a cupid plucking its harp.

While the 2009 UK Touring production (produced for the 25th anniversary and co-directed by James Powell and Laurence Connor) does dispense with Les Mis‘ previously iconic revolve, it manages to make the entire show feel far more grounded, truthful and relatable. The fighting, the emotion and the horrors of the abject poverty of many of the characters feels far more immediate and real with the context of scenery and projections instead of existing in the non-descript black box that it did before.

Matt Kinley’s set is highly effective, moving seamlessly in from the wings to create a huge range of different locations. The image designs, projected onto the back of the stage and inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, add immense depth to the already impressively sized stage. Paule Constable’s lighting is used effectively to create a sense of claustrophobia and loneliness, with many smoky, dark vistas, as well as opening up in rare moments of optimistic hopefulness.

Despite its massively talented cast, the real star of the show here is the music and the orchestra. The score is as impressive and gorgeous as it ever has been, with the orchestrations themselves having already been adapted at the turn of the century. An impressively sized band, the sound design by Mick Potter assists in enveloping the audience amidst the rise and fall of the cascading melodies. As the symphony breaks and crashes, the audience feel their emotions tumble and ride along with the story, with every note steering their path.

The cast themselves are phenomenally reliable, continuing to plum incredible depths with material so deeply familiar to many audience members. Yet they do not let this affect their performance or desensitise themselves to their plight. Listening to each of these songs, the audience could comfortably believe that it’s the first time that each performer had sung those particular words, so organic and grounded does each performance feel.

There is nothing lost in Les Mis‘ new production. Just as emotive, charged and affecting, this iteration makes the material the most accessible and relatable that it has ever been.

Les Misérables is playing now at the Sondheim Theatre and booking until 10th July 2022

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