Review: Les Miserables / Barbican Theatre / London (2010)

The all-too-brief run of the touring production of Les Miserables at the Barbican Theatre, London comes to an end next week. And when it does, the company should feel justifiably proud of their achievement. The first night definitely set the bar very high.

Not only did casting the show from previous productions ensure the quality of the musical performances remained high throughout the Barbican run, but the combination of stylish set and lighting designs reinvigorated the reputation of the work as a whole. This is how musical theatre should be. All the time.

Musically, Les Mis isn’t the pappy sentimental work most might assume. Aside from the the ubiquitous songs like “Empty Chairs”, “Master of the House” and “Bring Him Home”, composers Boubil and Schonberg’s writing is tricky to execute vocally and instrumentally. Whilst the pop opera might be devoid of the more traditional recitative, the demands placed on performers by the composers when they’re charged with moving the plot along are considerable. This is no ‘easy sing’.

And that’s where the cast’s experience really paid off. For the majority of the show such investment seems effortless. The audience takes it for granted. The pace is established at the beginning of the preamble. We are completely sucked into the action. Good singing is a given up until the showstoppers, when we’re suddenly reminded of just how accomplished those performers are.

John Owen-Jones delivers a refreshingly ham-free rendition of “Bring Him Home”. The deft casting of the young Cosette succeeded in avoiding the schmaltz which usually exudes from “Castle on a Cloud”. Earl Carpenter made the crowd roar with appreciation with his faultless delivery and terrific control and projection of “Stars”. Gareth Gates too, continues to prove his mettle.

These key performances, combined with the superior scoring and the inventive effects used to visualise underground Paris and Javert’s demise made the standing ovation at the end of the two and three quarter hour performance a foregone conclusion.

But there’s another – slightly darker – success this production has achieved. It’s thrown light on the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. I saw it for the first time a few weeks ago.

Whilst Les Mis predates Phantom of the Opera by 6 years (the former premiered in Paris in 1980), both shows have run in the West End for around about the same time – Les Mis for 25 years at The Queens Theatre and Phantom for 24 at Her Majestys Theatre.

Les Mis – and especially the Barbican run – steams ahead in terms of musical integrity and production. Phantom in comparison feels creaky, in terms of plot, music and production. The scene changes are noisy. Some of the ensemble numbers feel a little raggedy. The set is in need of a redesign too. And whilst Lloyd Webber’s score offers a collection of set-piece crowdpleasers throughout the first half (which no doubt pulls in the crowds night after night), its lack of pace makes the interval seem like a lifetime away.

The relative speed of the second half is – pretty much – because there’s a bit more going on. But in spite of this, there’s no investment in the characters in that there’s no feeling of jeapordy during or redemption at the end of the show.

Despite it’s ongoing popularity and box-office success the Phantom production now appears like it needs a massive injection to either kick-start it or bring it painlessly to its end. It is crying out for reinvention, especially in terms of set design. Unfortunately, the Barbican production of Les Mis just made that more obvious now.

Les Miserables Cast List

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