Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A truly masterly piece of theatre art

Les Miserables

Cameron Mackintosh , Wales Millennium Centre , December 23, 2009
Les Miserables by Cameron Mackintosh The powerful brass instruments accompanied by furious drum beats flood the Donald Gordon auditorium. Soon they are joined by the romance of the strings and then with all the orchestra that unique high dissonance of Schönberg’s music (whose presence at the curtain call was greatly appreciated) has us sitting upright and the hairs on the back of our necks tingling. Musical director Michael England, like everyone involved in this production, is a master of his art. As too is his chief sound man Mick Potter. They drive the music to always be all around us but the balance between the playing and the singing is always perfectly maintained.

And what marvellous signing voices, like the music penetrating our very being. Our senses are, as they continue to be throughout out the next three hours, excited by the manly full voices of the chorus, here as prisoners, beaten as the pull hard on the oars in the stinking bows of a ship set against a sweeping background, a work of fine art influenced by the drawings of original author Victor Hugo himself. Many more scenes follow with outstanding Impressionist backgrounds. Matt Kinley’s set design, involving the use of projection achieves an amazing atmosphere late in the play where we see Valjean dragging Marius’ lifeless body through the sewers of Paris. Quite early on it is clear that this is both a musical and visual masterpiece.

John Owen-Jones’ Jean Valjean is a powerful and beautiful man with a powerful and beautiful voice and whilst he and the company may not have brought sufficient heart and real feeling to a few of the earlier numbers, this did flourish and deepen as the story unfolded. His final solo ‘Bring Him Home’ was utterly penetrating and masterly. Trevor Nunn’s and John Caird’s original direction have been recreated for this 25th anniversary production, exquisitely by Laurence Connor and James Powell. With Owen-Jones at the helm they drive the story along at an
overwhelming pace. Like good chocolate and champagne the production is overwhelming in the joy it gives us.

The lack of humanity shown by some of the characters in this dark tale darkens that joy with our sympathy and emotion. Valjean is released from prison after nineteen years for stealing bread to feed a dying child. But he is let back into the world as a marked man. His captor, Javert is determined to return him back into captivity. Valjean, using a false name survives a new life. He runs a factory and is Mayor of his town. His own great strength gives him away, he is observed by Javert rescuing a man from beneath a fallen cart. Valjean is a man of great understanding and spirit, Javert is the other side of the coin. Earl Carpenter gives a commanding performance in the role, alone at the centre of the stage he, again fills the auditorium with his strong singing voice always managing to humanise his badness without falling into melodrama. Though there is a touch of controlled melodrama over the whole of the proceedings.

The amazing sensitivity of Rosalind James as Eponine was itself worth the price of the ticket. An extraordinary simple, believable and completely captivating creature that made our hearts bleed. Two more beautiful and gentle performances with clear and moving singing voices came from Katie Hall as Cosette and Madalena Alberto as Fantine There were charming and endearing performances from the children playing the girls’ younger selves and some great self possession from a very fine young Gavroche. The strength of the playing of student rebels Jon Robyns as the fervent leader and the elegant and determined Marius from Gareth Gates confirmed the life and dynamism of the production.

The gloom and beauty was not without its lighter moments and the great bosom of Lynne Wilmot made an important contribution to her highly amusing portrayal of Madame Thênardier in contrast with her skinny grabbing husband, an hilarious trickster from Ashley Artus . All this against so many wonderful stage pictures lit by yet again another master of his art, lighting designer Paule Constable. A truly masterly piece of theatre art.

Reviewed by: Michael Kelligan

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