“The world’s longest-running musical” the advertising board proclaims outside Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End. “25 years young!” shouts another – and judging by the sell-out crowd at Saturday’s matinee’ performance, Mackintosh-Schonberg’s epic musical Les Miserables won’t be leaving the city any time soon. And rightly so.
I had the good fortune to be in the theatre that Saturday and (despite the extortionate ticket price – £65 – how the theatre industry expects to stay afloat charging that much I’ll never know…) I fell in love with Victor Hugo’s epic story all over again.Part manhunt, part romance, part revolutionary drama, Les Miserables tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a Frenchman who finds himself imprisoned for 19 years for stealing some bread - so his family won’t starve.
On his release he finds himself unable to work for long, bearing the stigma of the criminal, and is taken in by a kindly Bishop – who he promptly repays by robbing. Caught by the French army Valjean expects a trip to the gallows – but is instead surprised when the Bishop sees to his freedom, proclaiming he has “Bought his soul for God.”
This act of kindness sets Valjean on a course through French history, seeing him outruning Inspector Javert - a duty-minded policeman without remorse – and ending up in the midst of the unsuccessful June Rebellion of 1832. (The French are always revolting…)
There’s a lot else to the story, of course, but I don’t want to spoil it for any future ‘Les Mis’ fans.
On the night in question, Valjean was played by tenor Alfie Boe, who carried off the role with great aplomb - and had me in tears at points with his heartfelt rendition. He was backed up with a brilliant cast who fulfilled multiple roles, without being obviously the same person.
The actor playing Javert, who was understudying for the regular, was particularly brilliant. He played the incorrigible Inspector with amazing skill, and a voice powerful enough to shake the gilded rafters of Queen’s Theatre in the midst of Javert’s heartfelt ‘Stars’. I only regret that I never caught his name.
The staging and lighting was faultless, as one would expect of a musical with 25 years’ experience, and as the play unfolds showstopping numbers such as ‘Master of the house’, ‘Do you hear the people sing?’ and ‘On my own’ had the audience in fits of giggles or flood of tears and the finale, with the haunting melody of the fallen, brought tears to the eyes of even the most hardened of theatregoers.
I kid you not, but the massive, bald, tattooed gentleman in row D – two rows behind me – was blubbing like a baby…
Of course, the Thenardiers’ – the villainous innkeepers who keep popping up like a bad penny – stole the show, as always. Led by the brilliant Martin Ball, the pair were the much-needed comic relief to the play’s tale of love and loss - everybody raise a glass to the master of the house!
Such is the power of Les Miserables, a play that will always take the position of ‘favourite musical’ in my heart - and whose songs are always on my lips.