Until Saturday 19 November 2022.
Seen by over 120 million people worldwide in 52 countries and in 22 languages, Les Misérables is undisputedly one of the world’s most popular musicals.
Les Miserables has finally landed in Sunderland for the first time this week. This is a musical full of recognisable songs and pulls the heartstrings of the audience. It is no wonder that the audience rose their feet at the end of the show after a magnificent performance. We were invited to the Gala night at the Wearside venue, and what a treat we had.
The show is packed with memorable songs. Even if you have not seen the show before you will immediately recognise I Dreamed A Dream. Do You Hear The People Sing and On My Own, as these are popular songs in their own right. Of course to hear such songs performed by extremely talented performers, and accompanied by a live orchestra, exemplifies the difference between hearing a song on the radio and live performance. Nothing really beats the live performance and sharing it with a full auditorium of people who are simultaneously going through the same emotions.
Another aspect of this particular production is the amazing set, lighting and sound. The way in which the set design, by Matt Kinley, is able to transform the stage quickly from a ship to the countryside to the factory and to a bar without any break in the action is remarkable. Paule Constable’s lighting design is then able to highlight the action, and also to to remove the distraction of the set as it transforms. Mick Potter's sound design ensures that everything is crystal clear, and this is not one of those musicals when we were struggling to hear at the back.
What is all about? The show was inspired by the writings of Victor Hugo. Indeed the cloth that you see as you enter the Auditorium is one of Victor's paintings that inspired the design of the show. With music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, the songs and the story combine to take you on a story set in early 19th century France.
The action begins aboard a slave ship and Jean Valjean (Will Barratt) is about to be released. He had been in prison for 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister and her family. Hence the story immediately starts looking at both the injustice of the legal system and the strong love that occurs within family ties.
Initially, our hero struggles to settle back into civilian life. Hampered, in no small measure, by the fact that he's been given a passport which marks him out as a convict and he's unable to get work or indeed to be able to find accommodation in an inn. After an evening in which the benevolent Bishop of Digne (Rick Zwart) gives him shelter the story then fast forwards to the point where Jean Valjean is operating under an alias and he has become a wealthy factory owner and the mayor. This puts him in a position of responsibility, however on his tail is a police chief Javert who thinks he recognises him from his time in prison. We are introduced to factory worker Fantine (Lauren Drew), who has a daughter Cosette (Paige Blankson) who is being abused by innkeepers Thénardier (Ian Hughes) and Madame Thénardier (Helen Walsh) and their daughter Éponine (Siobhan O’Driscoll). Fantine is sacked but when he recognises her in the street after turning to prostitution, Valjean tries to help her out. The action then builds up to the point in which the children have grown up and there's trouble, A blockade has been constructed and the French army is sent to deal with it.
The show has its light-hearted moments: the Innkeepers for example go about their thievery with the same level of comedy that might have been shown in Lionel Bart's Oliver. But, by and large the tone is a serious one. People are struggling and trying to make a living with limited means. they're also working against a system that is set up to make life as hard as possible.
Music is an aspect to the show that really stands out. and the direction of Giles Deacon, a large Orchestra filled the theatre with their wonderful sound. The singers on stage do a fantastic job in a production which is sung through. There were a number of stunning performances including Lauren Drew, as Fantine, producing a sensitive and emotional I Dreamed A Dream - it really touched the heartstrings. Eponine, performed by Siobhan O'Driscoll, was another stand-up performance when she opened act two with On My Own. Also of note was the tremendous voice of Nic Greenshields in his role as Javert.
Some people get upset when an understudy takes a major role. Our experience is that they needn't worry and tonight was one such example. The role of Jean Valjean was played by Will Barratt and and he clearly was made for the role. He was able to not only deliver fantastic vocal performances from the very beginning as he was released from prison and right through the show, but he was also able to command the stage with the sheer presence that the role demands. Will Barrett is somebody we hope to see in a leading role again soon.
The Gala performance also featured 3 incredible children. Little Cosette performed by Alexandra Perez Ramos and the Young Eponine was performed by Isabelle Barrett. Both did a wonderful job in their respective roles.
One young star to keep an eye on for the future is Lucas Melrose Steel who appeared as Gavroche. This confident young man was able to be a confident cheeky chappie and immediately connected with the audience. He had a significant role in Act 2 and didn't seem to be overwhelmed with the position that he found himself in. His ability to work with the audience with such a maturity was a real highlight of the show.
Here’s the thing - Musicals often fail. They lack memorable songs and they don't have plot line and offers any emotional response. As they struggle to emote with the audience they quickly vanish from memory. Indeed the follow-up show to this one, by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was based on Stephen King's novel Carrie. It was one of the biggest flops in Broadway history and has never had a UK tour. Les Miserables is an incredibly successful show because it was able to avoid the many pitfalls in setting up a show. Being this good is not as easy as it looks.
Packing in memorable music numbers tied up to an incredible plot line that one could relate to has helped make this a show one which will carry on touring for many years to come. The only real surprise is that it took so long for the show to appear in Sunderland. The musical is a real treat and at the end it was no surprise that he was given a full standing ovation. The audience was genuinely enthusiastic about the show. It is really pleasing to see a show with no weak links. If you've ever wondered why some people really love musical theatre, then this is a show that can show you why..
Review by Stephen Oliver.
Photos: Danny Kaan
Les Misérables will run at Sunderland Empire from Tuesday 1 November - Saturday 19 November 2022.
Tickets are available from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 7615* or online at https://tinyurl.com/SundLesMis *
*A £3.65 transaction fee applies to telephone and online bookings. Calls cost up to 7p per minute plus your standard network charge.