As the musical phenomenon that is Les Misérables returns to the Donald Gordon Theatre at the Wales Millennium Centre, Emma Schofield was at the press night for an emotionally charged performance of a production which still packs a powerful musical and political punch.
What better way to kick-off your Christmas that with good cry on a Friday night, as you mouth the words to ‘Bring Him Home’ and try to conceal your tears behind a copy of the Les Misérables programme, right? Actually, that’s one of the things that always strikes me when we talk about Les Misérables: everyone tells you how much they cried; it’s one of those musicals that seems unfailing in its ability to illicit an emotional response. That’s great, of course it is, but my goodness there is so much more to this complex and politically-loaded show.
From the opening scenes the intensity is there, palpable in the hum of the ‘Prologue’ and already starting to build. The opening section is always tricky, a series of scenes which carry the audience swiftly through the progress of Jean Valjean as he tears up his parole papers and seeks to build a new life for himself away from the clutches of police inspector, Javert, who continues to pursue him relentlessly. The balance in the structure of the musical is perhaps a strange one, years pass by in a sequence of swift scene changes as we see Jean Valjean’s paths cross with the hapless Fantine. Then all of a sudden, it slows down, everything comes back into focus, time pauses as we watch Valjean making his fraught promises to a dying Fantine. It is testament to the strength of the production that the complexity of this opening Act is handled which such finesse that it feels effortless and natural. The intensity never goes away; instead it comes in waves, peaking and troughing throughout the performance, drawing its audience into its swell.
It’s within this intensity that the experience of the cast really shines through. Dean Chisnall is outstanding as Jean Valjean; he has control of the pace at every point, so that by the time we reach that defining moment on the barricade as he pleads for Marius’ life in ‘Bring Him Home’ it is gentle, his voice more than filling the auditorium and the emotion palpable in this moment of calm amongst the death and destruction of the rest of the scene. It’s there too in the exchange between Valjean and Javert, as Valjean secretly releases Javert, helping him to escape from certain death at the hands of the revolutionaries who have captured him after his cover as a police spy was exposed. The interplay between the two whenever they are on stage is magnetic.
At this point it’s only right to pay tribute to Nic Greenshields who manages to capture the complexity of Javert, a man who has become consumed by his obsession with finding the missing Valjean and bringing him to justice. Javert is a character who is instantly dislikeable in those opening scenes, vindictive and aggressive, yet as time goes by Greenshields is able to bring another side to Javert. As his life is spared by Valjean, there is not only a vulnerability, but also a sense of confusion in his increasingly exasperated demeanour. Javert’s inability to understand why Valjean does not simply take the opportunity to kill him and bring their struggle to an end is a particularly powerful moment, in which both Greenshields and Chisnall are mesmerising in their intensity. In Javert’s dramatic final scene, which is superbly staged in this production, Greenshields throws himself entirely into conveying the sheer frustration of a man who feels he has no other means of escape from a chase which has haunted years of his life and career.
The power of the show undoubtedly originates within that opposition between Javert and Valjean, but around that there are so many other performances worthy of a mention. Women have a tough time in Les Misérables, they tend to operate around the men and are not always given the space they deserve to showcase the strength of those individual characters. Not so in Mackintosh’s production. Lauren Drew’s performance as Fantine, an exhausted and utterly desperate, young mother was a stand-out from the production. In Drew’s hands, Fantine slides easily between determination and despair and her heartfelt rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is almost painfully emotional, a moment during which you could quite easily have heard the proverbial pin drop. That depiction of a woman so completely abandoned by society never gets any easier to watch and I certainly wasn’t the only one reaching for the tissues as Fantine issued her confused and helpless cries for her for her young daughter, from the confines of her hospital bed. Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh pitch their turn as the Thénardiers exactly right, offering up a colourful and rousing rendition of ‘Master of the House’, with some much-welcomed light relief in their depiction of a pair of chancers who always seem, somehow, to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Despite being one of the longest running musicals in the UK, it’s clear that Les Misérables is still able to wield the emotional clout and the professional punch to keep pulling audiences back. The magic of Cameron Mackintosh’s production is that it has allowed the story to breathe. The big, dramatic scenes, such as those which evolve around the barricade, are still central and are as powerful as ever, but this production also embraces the quieter moments. Nothing feels rushed, everything is beautifully timed and there is as much power in these carefully controlled silences as there is in the noise and chaos of the barricade scenes. By the time Mairus (Will Callan) took to the stage, surrounded by a single candle for each of his fallen comrades, to sing ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, the space and silence around him had taken on a life of its own. It’s a mature performance in a production which knows its own identity.
Don’t let that maturity fool you; this current production is full of promise for the future. Paige Blankson makes an exciting professional debut as Cosette and the children in the cast are genuinely superb. It was also brilliant to see Llanelli’s Samuel Wyn-Morris performing the role of Enjolras on home turf in this Welsh run of Les Misérables, a part in which he is immediately commanding and persuasive.
All of which meant that it was no surprise to see so many of the sell-out audience on their feet at the end. Cameron Mackintosh has succeeded in offering up a production which takes you on a rollercoaster of emotion and stays with you long after the two hours and fifty minutes in the Donald Gordon Stage are up.
Les Misérables plays at the Wales Millennium Centre until January 14th. Tickets are available here.