Les Miserables, Bristol Hippodrome

EVERYTHING about Les Misérables is on the grand scale. Author Victor Hugo first had the idea of writing a novel about social misery and injustice in the early 1830s, but it was 1862 before the 1,462-page novel was published.

Despite a luke-warm reception from some critics, the show, now in its 36th year in London, has become the second longest running musical in theatrical history. From the first London presentation, in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, through to this new national tour, every production of Les Misérables has been on the grand scale.

The decision to abandon the revolve, virtually impossible to take on tour, robs the Barricade scene of some of its dramatic impact, but the inventive use of lighting, sound and projections ensures that Victor Hugo’s epic story is still told in a spectacular manner. And considering that the stage is only occasionally flooded with bright light, the production teams achieve some amazing, subtle changes of visual and emotional moods.

Those involved in the publicity shy away from the word opera, but with almost all the words in the script sung, rather than spoken, this really is more of an opera than a musical. Its great achievement is combining the near impossible task of linking a highly emotional, dramatic story and music together in a way that appeals to a far wider audience than lovers of classical opera. The hidden 14-piece orchestra is therefore as important as the players on stage, and under Ben Ferguson’s direction, these musicians fulfil their duty admirably.

It makes huge demands on the singers. Although Dean Chisnall could have been a little more imposing physically, he certainly was not short of passion and power, both vocally and dramatically, as he brought the heroic Jean Valjean vividly to life. Matching him all the way was Nic Greenshields’ Inspector Javert. I have seen more menacing and disagreeable Javerts, but none who collapsed more convincingly under the weight of Valjean’s forgiveness.

Apart from the young Cosette, sympathetically portrayed by Rachelle Bonfield-Bell as a child and Paige Blankson as a young woman, who finds love all around, from her mother Fantine, Valjean and Will Callan’s dashing student Marius, the women in Hugo’s story do not fare very well. Only the hardest of hearts would not have melted as Rachelle Ann Go’s fiercely loving Fantine is dragged by the fates into prostitution and death. Nathania Ong’s tragic lovelorn Eponine was an excellent contrast to Mia Lewellyn-Jones as her selfish younger self. Both senior ladies brought out the expertly drawn characters with their beautifully delivered vocals. Another youngster to take the eye was Charlie Hodson-Prior as the innocently fearless Gavroche

If you are looking for a couple of roles guaranteed to be scene stealers and bring some very welcome comedy into this harrowing tale, then look no further than the outrageous Madame Thenardier and her even more dishonest Inn keeper husband. With the support of the ensemble in full flow, Helen Walsh and Ian Hughes made the fun-filled, well-choreographed Master of the House a real show-stopper.

Les Misérables is now firmly established at Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 6th August, before moving on to the final six venues of the tour, including the Millennium Centre, Cardiff from 13th December 2022 to Saturday 14th January 2023.

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