Les Misérables – Birmingham Hippodrome

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg

Lyrics: Herbert Kretzmer (Original French Text: Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel)

Directors: Laurence Connor and James Powell

Post-Covid fighting fit ‘Les Mis/The Glums’ (to the seasoned afficionados) has become as ingrained into the evergreen touring musicals iconography as the forlorn woodcut portrait waif international poster splash. Victor Hugo’s championing of social justice and advocacy for the eradication of misery and poverty has lasting agency set against contemporaneous social crises, political hypocrisy and ennui. Its pertinent resonance ensures the themes of Les Misérables remain, sadly, as potent as ever. So, think-big creatives, Boubill and Schönberg et al decide, ‘Hey! Lets make a popular opera in accessible English (later) about a French bloke who steals a loaf of bread. Best have a word with the librettist on that one.’

Never mind the set-piece bombast of astonishing barricades, the ghetto-claustrophobic tenements and pop-out balconies, spot-lit cued for another, conveniently timed aria of heart-break angst. Never mind the gawp-gazing disbelief being descended into the Parisian sewers. If that is not enough? Maybe be the Wurlitzer-waltz silken-skirt fantasia underscored with a brooding menace resonant of Kubrick’s The Shining. Not enough?

It’s the need for a skip-sized dustpan and brush to tidy up after the elephant in the room bloomin’ obvious that Les Mis is a damnably superb popular opera that oughtn’t be ashamed of its name. Its longevity and popularity have evolved since its premiere on 24th September 1980 at the Palais des Sports, Paris. Stage technology has made quantum jumps since then while, conversely, cinema and TV audiences have grown weary of GCI overload at the expense of story. The seamless shifting and transitions of set-pieces are of astonishing artistry and design (Matt Kinley). It is this virtual magic before them that the audience embraces together with the rare wonder of seriously gifted singers using the minimum of amplification and verboten Auto-Tune.

Notwithstanding, there’s the miracle of rare device – a seriously suited proper orchestra under the direction of Ben Ferguson. Tonight’s conductor’s baton is set to light-sabre lethal precision. As for the band? Cooler than a penguin’s pecker in a polar bear’s souvenir ice box. For so many, the experience of the ‘magic of three’ comes alive: singers on stage, orchestra and themselves – an unprecedented, organic potency.

The magisterial, climatic denouement to Act One – the martial-emboldened ensemble of man, woman and child defending the barricades in the heroic do or die Do You Hear the People Sing is a tough act to follow: Act Two proves muchly so. But lush revolutionary love arias of confused identities are grudgingly resolved, notwithstanding several death-bed scenes where the naughty spirit of Oscar Wilde’s waspish comment – One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ lingers suggestively.

But Les Mis remains blitz-proof to high-brow condescensions, pithy cynicism, and accusations of pretension. The ever-present sell-out derrières on seats assay-proof enough of its gilded, timelessness – a true Modern Classic.

Runs Until 27 August 2022 and on tour

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Les Mis Does the Biz Again

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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