Review: Les Miserables

The enduring joy of misery

By John Jeffay, August 12, 2010

The Lowry, Salford

Salford’s 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables  goes from bleak tragedy to colourful comedy

Salford’s 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables goes from bleak tragedy to colourful comedy

Les Miserables, the world's most successful musical, marks its 25th anniversary in spectacular fashion. Cameron Mackintosh's re-worked production takes the paintings of Victor Hugo – author of the source novel, Les Misérables - as inspiration for remarkable new stage sets and scenery.

The muted colours and dramatic back-lighting reflect the bleak plight of Hugo's wretched characters.

For those who have missed the Les Mis phenomenon, the musical is set during the French Revolution in the early 1800s and tells the story of Jean Valjean, freed after 19 years on the chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread.

The plot is intricate, the cast list is extensive, and the dialogue is all in song, so if you are not an aficionado, a little time spent with the programme notes before taking your seat would not go amiss.

A bishop shows Valjean unexpected mercy and "buys his soul for God". Valjean, played by John Owen-Jones, becomes an honest man, a respectable factory owner and mayor of his town. Yet he is still haunted by the prisoner number etched on his skin and he is not a happy man.

Nor for that matter is Javert, the police inspector who dedicates his life to chasing him. Or indeed Cosette (Katie Hall), the girl Valjean adopts as his own after rescuing her from an evil innkeeper.

Or her lover Marius (played by Pop Idol runner up Gareth Gates). Or Eponine (Rosalind James) who also loves Marius – a love unrequited - and dies in his arms from a bullet meant for him as he mans the barricades.

This production, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, is dark and forceful. Even after all this time, the most poignant scenes still have the power to move - Marius dragging the near-lifeless Valjean through a Paris sewer, and Fantine, mother of Cosette, being forced to sell her hair - and then her body.

Similarly, the score, including favourite songs such as At The End of The Day and Look Down, retains its appeal, despite the danger of over-familiarity.

It is only when the mood lifts with the comic wedding scene at the end that you realise quite how deliberately grey and downbeat everything else has been, as though someone's flicked the switch from monochrome to colour.

This production moves to The Barbican in London next month and will run alongside the West End show at the Queen's Theatre. In October there will be a third production, with a celebratory show at the O2 arena.

(At the Lowry until 21 August. Tel: 0843 208 6000)

Last updated: 11:11am, August 12 2010