Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 12th August 2022
Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of post-revolutionary France (honestly, you could derail a train with that thing) has become more widely known due to this musical adaptation, which receives something of an upgrade after all these years. The staging is enhanced by video projections, mainly of gloomy watercolours (inspired by the daubs of Hugo himself), but these effects never overshadow the action. The lighting, by Paule Constable, is absolutely beautiful, giving scenes the richness of the Old Masters. The visuals match the quality of the music and the singing. The show feels both familiar and fresh.
Dean Chisnall is powerful as the upright Jean Valjean, a man seeking to rehabilitate himself after a 19-year stretch for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean should try his luck in the supermarkets of today, where even the tubs of butter have security tags. Branded a criminal for the rest of his days, Valjean is the moral heart of the story, and Chisnall’s singing has a purity to it. His nemesis, the dogged Inspector Javert, is played by an imposing Nic Greenshields, towering over everyone else. Greenshields brings nuance to the putative villain of the piece, even displaying tenderness over the (Spoiler) corpse of plucky little Gavroche.
At this performance, the role of young lover Marius is played by Caleb Lagayan, who really shines in the heart-breaking Empty Chairs and Empty Tables. His voice blends marvellously with Paige Blankson’s soprano, and the trio, when the lovers are joined by go-between Eponine (Nathania Ong) is sublime. Also strong are Rachelle Ann Go as the doomed Fantine, Rick Zwart as the kindly bishop, Samuel Wyn-Morris as the rousing Enjolras, and of course Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh, who rapidly establish themselves as audience favourites, the ghastly Thernadiers.
The chorus scenes are stunning, whether squabbling in a dingy factory, beckoning outside a brothel, or manning the barricades – these latter scenes are almost immersive, thanks to Mick Potter’s sound design; you can almost feel the bullets whizz past your head.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen or listened to the show. I’d forgotten how repetitive the score can be, with tunes and phrases repeated and repeated. The big numbers are bangers, of course, but I find the recitatives a little wearing. (Incidentally, audience member seated directly behind me, it’s not really appropriate to whoop and holler to demonstrate your appreciation for someone’s tender death scene, no matter how well it’s performed. Glad you’re enjoying it, but not down my earhole, please!)
For me, the star of the show is the translation of the book and lyrics into English by Herbert Kretzmer, giving dignity to the undignified, wit to the wretched, and compassion to the tortured. It’s thrilling to see the show performed live with all the bells and whistles (no thank you, concert performance) and thank goodness you don’t need a degree in French history to derive an immense amount of pleasure from all this suffering.
The French have always been better at taking to the streets than we Brits. The show emphasises romance over social injustice, hitting us emotionally rather than politically, so don’t expect to leave the theatre in revolutionary mood.
Stirring stuff, in one respect, but the message seems to be, The poor are always with us, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆