The all star concert staging of Les Miserables in London’s West End was one of the most hotly anticipated shows of 2019; a cast that boasts such talents as Alfie Boe, John Owen-Jones, Michael Ball, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Matt Lucas and Katy Secombe, not to mention Earl Carpenter, Bradley Jaden, Rob Houchen and Shan Ako was always going to be very watchable. And so it proved to be at the (for me) second time of watching, this time when the cast have been in the roles for a month. I was especially keen to see what, if any, the differences were.
Michael Ball is a great Javert and at the end of the show, you can see how much he loves this musical, having originated the role of Marius at the Barbican. Throughout Javert’s scenes he is immensely believable – imposing to begin with before taking us through the struggle that leads to Javert’s ultimate realisation that the world is made up of grey, not just the black and white he has believed in all his life. The chemistry between Michael and Alfie Boe is very strong and the knowledge that the pair are good friends adds just that extra edge to their scenes together.
Any version of Les Mis hangs on it’s Jean Valjean and Cameron Mackintosh has lined up the dream casting of Alfie Boe and John Owen-Jones sharing the role, both having played JVJ numerous times before, most recently on Broadway in 2015. In this performance, the role was taken by Alfie, regarded by many as one of the definitive modern JVJ’s (the other being John – if you have another favourite, don’t write in!) and, from the moment that he first appears, commands the stage. The rich tenor tones are there, both in soft moments and those moments that require him to belt it out of the theatre. Bring Him Home is of course the song most associated with Alfie and he does not disappoint, bringing even more tenderness and passion with the context of the show around it. However, the epilogue is the most moving part of the show for me and Alfie saves his best acting for this. After a life of fear, never being happy, even with Cosette, always looking over his shoulder, JVJ is finally at peace – Alfie, having shown us the fear beneath the veneer of respectability and strength of JVJ’s life post-jail, casts that away so that all is left is peace.
Carrie Hope Fletcher brings a gentleness and tenderness to Fantine, you just want to give her a hug and a helping hand. Always a vulnerable character, Carrie manages to convey the last bit of fight that Fantine possesses, even though both the audience and she knows that it’s futile. Shan Ako’s performance as Eponine is equally impressive, bringing the right amount of bravado and vulnerability to the role. Eponine has the best song for me in the show, On My Own, and Shan sang it beautifully. Being one of my favourite Les Mis characters, I’ve never particularly warmed to the role of Cosette (nothing to do with the musical role, it’s terribly underwritten by Victor Hugo) but Lily Kerhoas brings a little verve and life to the character. Her moments with Rob Houchen, a wonderful Marius, are very sweet and touching. Bradley Jaden, has a wonderfully rich voice and the undeniable stage presence needed for Enjolras. He more than holds his own in the company of such voices as Michael and Alfie.
A word for Matt Lucas and Katy Secombe as the Thenardiers, who were brilliant and gained possibly the biggest cheer of the night when making their first appearance. There is multiple instances of ad libbing and the audience is roaring with laughter in anticipation of the next one liner. Numerous times other cast members seemed to be in danger of laughing at the wrong moment which all adds to the fun. Matt’s voice was always wonderful but it’s gained an extra depth since he first took the role. Additionally, although Thenardier is a comedic role, Matt conveys the underlying essence of nastiness and brutality that sits at the core of the character.
The set must have it’s own recognition too; the lighting forms part of the barricade, as does the orchestra set. The orchestra themselves are magnificent, despite being much smaller than that in the traditional show. When this run finishes at the end of November, the traditional show, albeit with newer staging, will return next door to it’s regular home, now renamed the Sondheim theatre. Until then, beg, steal or borrow to do whatever you have to in order to see this show. I can’t think how it could be bettered.
Photo credit: Seamus Ryan