When it premiered at the Barbican, way back in 1985, to decidedly mixed reviews, not even uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh could have predicted that a quarter of a century later, his production of Les Misérables would return as one of the theatrical phenomena of its age.
In case you have been living in a cave for the last 25 years, this epic musical, based on Victor Hugo’s famous 19th century novel, has been seen by over 56 million people worldwide in over 20 languages, enjoyed over 30 cast recordings and triumphantly become the world’s longest running musical.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, this all-new production has been spectacularly reworked for a limited anniversary run at the Barbican while continuing its record-breaking West End run at the Queen’s theatre; on 3 October at The O2, there is also a one-off star-studded celebratory anniversary concert.
Written by Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schönberg, this tale of the triumph of the human spirit amidst the tumult of revolutionary France is packed with valiant heroes and love-struck heroines, tragedy, romance, villainous thieves, bawdy women, innocent children and political intrigues, wrapped around now-famous songs such as Do You Hear The People Sing?, On My Own, Bring Him Home and One Day More.
Starring the excellent John Owen-Jones as Jean Valjean, Earl Carpenter as Javert and former teen poster boy Gareth Gates – proving there is far more to his performing bow than Pop Idol as the idealistic Marius – Les Misérables, fuses despair and hope, humour, hardship, triumph and humiliation to highly successful effect. Moments of touching delicacy contrast with monumental battle scenes and comedic pastiche, and as you might expect from its phenomenal success, the whole package comes together with dramatically successful assurance.
The Barbican production features spectacular new set designs, inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings, incorporating impressive CGI special effects to bring the murky underworlds and stricken streets of Paris to vivid life. A sequence where Valjean carries the wounded Marius through the swirling, pungent city sewers is particularly memorable. The lighting too, transports the visual experience far beyond the ordinary.
It is a democratic show with the principal characters sharing the solo highpoints liberally around, accompanied by a particularly adept supporting cast.
The lyrics might not win any Pulitzer prizes, there is an element of pigeon-hole caricature to some of the characters and the battle scenes, as the authorities storm the revoutionary barricades, verge on the camp, but this is almost churlish nit-picking. The epic spectacle and the quality of the cast – particularly Owen-Jones and the impressive, (still) cherubic Gates – carry a willing, packed audience with them from start to finish.
If you want a night of unabashed, blockbuster musical theatre, Les Misérables is exactly that.