It’s hard to know where to start. As an audience we’ve watched fifty children, too young to vote, give everything they own to an epic tale of love, revolution and war, and we’ve been left wrung out by the experience. By the end of the evening many of those watching were on their feet and several had been in tears. This is Kings Ely’s drama at its most dramatic.
Victor Hugo was writing in Paris as the events of 1832 shattered his peace with gunfire from the direction of Les Halles. Caught up in the chaos he would watch events which would eventually weave their way into one of the finest pieces of literature ever written: Les Misérables. France’s bloody revolution and years of terror and instability until the restoration of an uneasy crown don’t immediately sound as if they would lend themselves to musical theatre, yet Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil created, against all the odds and with some fantastically woeful reviews when the show first opened at the Barbican, the West End’s longest running musical, now in its thirty-second year.
Nick Huntington’s production is forceful from its opening bars: fifteen musicians, including three keyboards, provide a sound that’s sonorous when it needs to be and utterly romantic if called for. Their precision in timing during the two hours forty we’ll be watching the story unfold is extraordinary; this isn’t easy music. Fifteen musicians will never drop a stitch and Jonathan Kingston’s musical direction is tighter than a garrotte, no note ever out of place or miskeyed. The complete sound is remarkable in its sensitivity and wild when let loose in its ambition. Every bar leads us to want more.
The story opens as Jean Valjean, imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving baby, is let out on parole by his bloodless captor Javert. Desperation leads him to steal valuable silver pieces from the bishop who has recognised his plight and given him shelter, but rather than hand him over to the authorities the bishop not only forgives him but piles him with even more largesse. But there’s a condition: the bishop claims Javert for God. Orlando Squires as the bishop gives weight and texture to an important role as it is from this point that Javert starts to turn his life around.
Using his wealth to employ others Valjean will become mayor, well respected, and able to provide a home for Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, whom Valjean has saved from an uncertain fate by buying her back from the Thenardiers who have enslaved her. Mark Spofforth as innkeeper Thenardier and Emmanuelle Yembe as Madame Thenardier are as gruesome a couple as one would hope, working together superbly and holding the audience deftly by their grubby fingers as they philander their way through the wallets of their customers to provide some of the very few laughs of the evening, particularly during the terrific Master of the House routine.
Elizaveta Denisova as Fantine is flawless in both her acting and singing: her concentration is terrific and it’s a spellbinding performance, particularly when she returns towards the end of the evening to be reunited with a dying Jean Valjean.
In his programme notes Nick Huntington asks us to take a look at the stories created by the minor characters as they inhabit the set. The book is an intricate one but there’s nobody who doesn’t lend strength to the storytelling as those stories unfold behind the action. In Valjean’s factory the futility of a wretched life is played out with a horrible vigour by Isobel Oughton, Victoria Davis, Paige Grey, Natsuko Noguchi, Imogen Kirkpatrick, Stephanie Segall and Darcey Newell. The moment when as a group they turn on Fantine is awful to watch; again it’s hard to understand how actors so youthful can produce such maturity in their performances. In charge of costumes, and doubling as Assistant Director, Kathryn Sudbury has pulled together some quite awful threads which the company wear as if they were born to them. Again, there’s not a stitch out of place, especially in the revolutionary costumes worn by the students on the barricade.
It’s the barricade that offers the greatest spectacle of the evening as the young idealists fight for their lives against the tyranny of oppression. We know that death is the only outcome but still we hope for a different ending. Special mention to all the students: Joshua Jackson, Christopher Jobe, Alexander Layfield, Thomas Scott, Jacky Chow, Theodora Taylor, Peter Lonsdale, Frederick Bowles, Harry Skoulding, Sarah Bluck, James Layfield and Jack Grinstead. The onstage pictures they created and the commitment they showed, both to their cause and to a memorable evening, will live on.
Gavroche, doomed Gavroche, will steal our hearts. The devil may care Artful Dodger, able to pick his way through the barricade with the dexterity of a fox, will lead to his death and without doubt it’s probably one of the show’s saddest moments. Pierre Taffara-Cox as Gavroche is bang on the money and it’s a gem of a routine. If there’s any sadness it’s only that we won’t have had the chance to see William Pinto to play the same role at other performances.
Young Eponine and Young Cosette are given full width and depth by some of the youngest performers in the show. Emma Farmer and Catherine Raynes as young Eponine, and Tia Glenister and Ciara Comley as young Cosette provide a much needed ahh factor during other more serious moments.
Back in the inn, and giving their all to Master of the House, Joshua Jackson, Rosie Johnson, James Layfield and Hope Dudley provide rollocking backing to Thenardier, slip-sliding around the set to some precise and hugely witty choreography. And almost completing the company it’s important to mention the excellent work by a chorus that comprised Audrey Raynes, Emily James, Eleanor Scott, Isabelle Jupp, Takudzwa Gomera, Elizabeth Carberry, Maya Deulina, Amelia Merrick, Jake Clifton and Umair Tariq. Nobody tonight was unimportant, and everyone was vital to the show’s astonishing success.
Jay Skoulding was the Foreman, Charlie Watson was Bamatabois and Samuel Black was Enjolras, the leader of the students in every way, the sort of shining light you’d want to follow, even if it meant a certain death.
All of which leaves our lovers – Marius and Cosette – played by John-Paul Gilbey and Indea Cranner, and a chance of some happiness by the end of the evening. Their relationship was sincere and both gave it everything they had. As Eponine, as fateful in love as she is in life, our hearts went out to Eloise George who made the part her own. Yet another terrific performance.
Finally, the adversaries: Valjean and Javert. Without two strong performances there is simply no show. Sebastian Carberry as Javert spat out his venom with a staccato that hurt like a knife: soulless, lifeless and dark. Beautifully sung and wonderfully realised. Oliver Wilkinson as Valjean had the biggest journey of anyone during the evening and he achieved it effortlessly and with utter believability. For one so young to be able to bestride several decades and to make each of them as real as the last takes real talent and he has it in spades.
But we return to where we started: the total and resounding success of a piece which, although actor-proof on the whole, is far from fool proof. The young company’s achievement reached a zenith, epic in its scope and utterly true to its formidable roots.