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

Ryanair’s policy on musical instruments …

Ryanair’s Head of Communications Stephen McNamara bullishly defended the airline’s policy on musicians having to buy a second seat for their musical instruments on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row tonight by saying:

… musicians are good at reading music, but not so good at reading the terms and conditions …

The discussion chaired by presenter Mark Lawson also featured the Chief Executive Incorporated Society of Musicians Deborah Annetts who called for an industry wide standard policy on the thorny issue.

This isn’t a new problem. Professional musicians have long mumbled about how some airlines fail to take care of large musical instruments such as double basses. They were doing it when I was an orchestral manager in the mid-90s. Tours were the cause of much stress as a result. And rightly so. Those very instruments are vital to a musician’s work.

But with the advent of social media and the rise of an airline whose marketing strategists remain unabashed at such ideas as charging for using the toilet, implementing a charge for overweight passengers or introducing a stand up seat, those riled by Ryanair’s policy on musical instruments in the hold and in the cabin are galvanised. The Facebook group Musicians against Ryanair has been gaining momentum for most of the year. Its membership now stands at 13,729. That’s quite a lot of professional musicians asking for change.

It’s claimed the airline now levies an additional charge for those musicians whose instruments go over the weight allocation for each passenger’s hold luggage allowance. Not only that, it seems that in some cases musicians who previously had been able to take their smaller sized instruments on board as hand-luggage are now being asked to purchase an additional ticket. Ryanair isn’t the professional musician’s airline of choice at the present time.

Even young aspiring musicians aren’t exempt either. Interestingly however, young violinist Francesca Rijks who was told by Ryanair to buy a £190 ticket for her violin who missed her flight when her parents attempted to book the seat, ended up having a better experience with rival budget airline EasyJet who let the 12 year old take her instrument on board their service as hand luggage.

Only today on my return EasyJet flight from Barcelona I spied a professional violinist storing her instrument in the overhead lockers in the cabin. Francesca Rijks wasn’t a one off. If EasyJet can allow suitably sized musical instruments on board as a piece of hand luggage, couldn’t Ryanair?

The picture used in this blog post is called “Stolen Violin”. It was published by Flickr User Luz A Villa and is used here in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons License.

BBC Proms 2010: Prom 19 / Sondheim Prom / BBC Concert Orchestra

Updated: Sunday 1 August 2010

This was an incredibly special evening. Both me and my Significant Other knew it would be so the moment we knew we’d secured tickets to the night.

But it wasn’t until Simon explained to me prior to the concert what he was looking forward to, I was reminded about one crucial thing.

Sunday In The Park With George was the show he and I (with a handful of a close friends) went to go and see hours after we’d signed our names on our civil partnership in 2006. I was suffering from indigestion for the first half. I’d devoured an entire cheese course. I couldn’t help myself.

But it was Jenna Russell’s performance in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production at the Wyndham Theatre that day which made the day. We were in the second row. Her performance was stunning. We cried. She cried. Everyone cried.

No surprises then that come the reprise of the numbers from Sunday in the Park with George – especially Jenna Russell’s performance – that things got a little bit emotional in the loggia box where we were sat. A reprised performance conjured up romantic memories of what had been a deliberately low-key day for us in the company of closest friends. I’d been introduced to Sondheim’s music by Simon shortly after we met. Seeing a Sondheim show to mark our civil partnership was both lucky (the production was quickly sold out in 2006) and seemingly ‘right’. To then be reminded of that day at the Prom made the whole concert seem like Christmas Day.

Sondheim’s score for Sunday in the Park is his most mature writing. It sounds it. His lyrics too have a dryer perhaps even more satisfying humour than the pantomime Into the Woods or Forum, making the entire thing seem like a Phd in comparison to the degree level Sweeney. There was even beauty in coincidence too. When Russell sang about it being ‘hot up here’ and a bead of sweat sliding down her neck, wilting audience members nodded in agreement.

I’m a Sondheim fan – though not an expert – so what with that and the personal ties with the past, I found it difficult resisting the temptation to record a cheeky snippet from Sunday. For God’s sake, don’t tell Roger Wright I captured this.

If Russell eclipsed the top-billing of Dame Judi Dench singing Send in the Clowns (it was a brilliant tear-jerker, although we knew it would be anyway), then tenor Julian Ovendon singing Being Alive did the same over Bryn Terfel. The latter’s operatic style seemed a little too big on stage in comparison to the more modest but plausible musical theatre performances provided by other members of the company. Over-acting is easy just as it is easy to spot too. Maria Freedman playing Mrs Lovett was the perfect foil to this in the Sweeney duet showing all the black humour the role demands.

Having said this, nothing really detracted from what was in Proms terms was an incredibly special night. It was lovely to be in a space with so many others who shared enthusiasm for Sondheim’s work. The performance on stage was polished and executed by people who clearly demonstrated their love for the composer not only in their performance but also in the welcome they had for him when he stepped onto stage at the end of the concert.

And that welcome was magnified during the standing ovation he received from the audience too, something I’ve never seen at the Albert Hall.

:: Watch members of the BBC Concert Orchestra perform Stephen Sondheim’s Take me to the World.

Eurovision 2010: Ireland chooses Niamh Kavanagh

There was something old school about live RTE’s Eurosong programme on Friday 5 March 2010.

I saw it by accident, slumped on a sofa in my hotel room the night before a blogging conference in Kilkenny.

Even I couldn’t believe my luck nor my shameful lack of awareness that only the week before the UK mounts its selection programme I had assumed the Irish hadn’t selected theirs already. I figure my forgetfulness is forgivable. I am quite busy after all. I do work quite hard.

Ireland’s selection programme occupied a special edition of RTE’s popular Friday night slot, The Late Late Show. In comparison to the established UK format, this was a significantly smaller affair. Joining host Ryan Tubridy were Irish winners from Eurovision yesteryear Dana and Johnny Logan. They sang, chatted with Tubridy, each other and Irish Eurovision commentator Marty Whelan sharing anecdotes and offering opinions. Former UK runner-up musical theatre luvvie Michael Ball joined the fray for a shameless spot of promotion too.

Songwriters got their moment before each song, proudly chatting to Tubridy about the work they’d crafted. For those who’d participated in the competition before the inevitable question was asked, “are you a glutton for punishment, or what?” When German songwriter Ralph Siegel (a man who always seems to crop up at Eurovision for one country or another) had his turn, there was a very real danger he would never stopping talking.

If the show’s producers had hoped that their star panelists would deliver some biting comment after each performance they were to be disappointed. Logan was honest, Whelan ridiculously over-enthusiastic about everything. Dana just felt uncomfortable about judging people, it seemed. It didn’t take long before Tubridy was pre-empting her. The vision of panellists contributing their opinion was in tatters. It must have been hell in the gallery.

It didn’t really matter. In amongst five songs, the front runner was ‘It’s For You’ sung by former Eurovision winner Niamh Kavanagh. The rest of the acts paled into insignificance. Kavanagh’s voice was gorgeous when she won in 1993 with ‘In Your Eyes’ and it’s still gorgeous now. The only thing she might want to look at between now and Ireland’s semi-final appearance is the outfit. The one for Friday night’s show did upstage her rather.

Still, the song should do Ireland proud. Admittedly, I can’t remember the song particularly now the show is over but it has integrity. It’s a decent song. It sounds like a standard. And that’s a nice thing to think (especially because it’s genuinely felt). Such songs enrich the soul of a Eurovision fan. And unlike previous years, if it won I wouldn’t be displeased in any way shape or form.

All this is great for Ireland’s chances at Eurovision. As a previous winner Kavanagh will make the long-in-the-tooth fans’ hearts flutter uncontrollably. Someone from the past setting foot on the stage to wow the audience once more.

But more than that, Ireland’s song is a manifestation of an emerging desire to return the contest to it’s roots.

It was no surprise that Johnny Logan did at times need reigning in when Tubridy threw the conversation open to him. But in the moments when Logan didn’t digress, wandering down the self-indulgent path, he made his view of the contest clear. “It’s not about me and it’s not about RTE. It’s about the people of Ireland choosing a song for the country.”

Difficult as his personal opinions would have been for TV producers of a live show in the UK, Logan’s seemingly emotional frailty over the Eurovision was both refreshingly and revealing. It’s not all tits and teeth and shiny floors in Ireland, it seems.

Against this backdrop, the lack of a gaudy set didn’t leave the programme wanting, even if the lack of chemistry left amongst everyone in the panellists corner resulted in some uncomfortable moments of live TV.

It might have lacked the now ubiquitous booms, tired looking club lighting and running shots from audience to stage, but the mix of static shots and slow pans was successful in focussing attention on the very thing Johnny Logan was encouraging his Irish audience to yearn for: the song.

Sometimes, if it’s not broken don’t fix it.