Review – Les Miserables, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 10th November 2018

Les MiserablesI wouldn’t say the first time we saw Les Miserables that we hated it, but we certainly didn’t get it. It was 1986. We were too young, too wet behind the ears and, frankly, not enough things had gone wrong in our lives to be able to appreciate it. Then, a few years ago, at the suggestion of Mrs Chrisparkle’s boss at the time, we chanced to find ourselves at the Imperial Theatre in New York to see the new high pizazz production that was described as Les Mis for the American Idol Generation.

Killian DonnellyI’d love to be able to put the New York/Leicester production (because they are more or less the same) up against the original 1980s London production and see if and where they differ. I sense that Laurence Connor and James Powell’s version is somehow more in-your-face and no-holds-barred than Trevor Nunn and James Caird’s. Just like when we saw it in New York, this production is outstanding, no two ways about it. Instant ovation, that seemed to go on for hours; great performances, set, musical direction, everything about it is superlative. The cunning projected backdrop that recreates the scenes in the sewers, or makes you think the students are marching towards you, works so well; but no better moment than when Javert falls to his death (oops spoiler alert) and moves from vertical standing up to horizontal splashing down purely by means of optical illusion. It’s absolutely brilliant.

JVJI could save myself a lot of time by simply referring you to my 2015 review of the production because the only difference is substituting the slightly smaller Leicester stage for the grandeur of the New York Imperial. All the great effects are the same – the lighting in the barricades scene, the pure heroism of Red/Black, and the emotional charge of moments such as Bring Him Home and I Dreamed a Dream.

EponineComparisons are odious when it comes to performances. When we saw it in 2015, the management had clearly hired the best cast money could buy and they were all extraordinary, no exceptions. The UK touring production also has a fantastic cast but, in comparison, I felt they hadn’t all entirely grown into it yet. To be honest, the performance I saw still counted as a preview; and to compare that to a Broadway cast a few months into their run is probably not entirely fair. When we saw it in Broadway, we cried at Fantine’s death, Bring Him Home, and the final scene. We continued crying as we left the theatre. We resumed crying (embarrassed now) on the streets, walking back to our hotel. We threw ourselves on the bed and started crying all over again. THAT’S how emotional it was. In this production, I started to cry during Bring Me Home but got my cool back before the song had finished. Admittedly, when Fantine re-appeared to welcome Jean Valjean into heaven, I dissolved completely; but I was fine again by curtain call. If I compare the number of minutes spent in tears between the two performances then New York wins hands down on the emotional front.

Great setOur Jean Valjean was Killian Donnelly, a great actor with a tremendous voice, whom we enjoyed in Kinky Boots a couple of years ago. He really brings out the kindness and altruism of the role, largely as a result of exploiting his extraordinarily delicate tone when he sings. Some actors could take to this with bombast and turbo power, but Mr Donnelly makes it his own through sheer subtlety and grace. Javert, his arch-opponent, is played by Nic Greenshields, whose physical presence is so perfect for a dominant and domineering role. His is a powerful performance, both in the singing and the emotions. One thing that really works perfectly is how the two actors/characters both age during the show. Les Miserables spans the decades, so it makes sense for them both to become greyer as time goes on, and Mr Donnelly in particular gradually starts to shuffle and to stoop so that you really get the impression of an old man running out of time.

ThenardiersThere were excellent supporting performances by Tegan Bannister as Eponine and Katie Hall as Fantine, full of emotion and superb singing. Martin Ball gives us an almost pantomime villain performance as Thenardier, with the always terrific Sophie-Louise Dann as his ghastly wife. Harry Apps makes a remarkable professional debut as Marius – such a pivotal role, as you have to be both young and naïve yet mature enough to want to marry Cosette, and he pretty much nailed that; and Will Richardson cut a truly heroic figure as the inspirational Enjolras. I don’t know which child actors appeared in the show we saw, but whoever played little Cosette was absolutely perfect; and the friendship between Ruben Van Keer’s Grantaire and Gavroche was also very tenderly portrayed.

Marius and EnjolrasI had huge – and I mean huge – expectations of this show, having been blown over by the New York production, and I reckon they were 98% met; and it’s only going to get better and better as the tour progresses. After Leicester it travels to Dublin, Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Newcastle. No hesitation in recommending it whole-heartedly; take lots of tissues.

Review – The Phantom of the Opera, Milton Keynes Theatre, 30th October 2012

Phantom of the Opera 1986Picture the scene. The date: Friday, 17th October 1986. The location: London’s glitzy West End. Her Majesty’s Theatre is the place to be, as Phantom of the Opera had opened a couple of days earlier to sensational reviews. In Stalls seats B9 & B10 (costing a stupendous £18.50 each) were a young Mr and Mrs Chrisparkle (actually she wasn’t Mrs C then, still the demure Miss D). Behind us, in inferior seats, the comedian Dave Allen (very short, accompanied by a very glamorous lady); a couple of rows back, to the side, Australian ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. On stage: Steve Barton – a heroic Raoul; Sarah Brightman – a stunning Christine; Michael Crawford – a gobsmackingly brilliant Phantom. Such nights are the stuff of life-long memories.

Sarah Brightman and Michael CrawfordAnd we’ve never seen Phantom since, until this week when the current touring production has come to haunt the Milton Keynes theatre until 24th November. The original, of course, is still on in London, but this touring production has a different director – Laurence Connor; a different choreographer – Scott Ambler (one of our dance heroes); a different set designer – Paul Brown; and wisely keeps Maria Björnson’s original costume design. The overall impression of this combination of creatives is that the production is overwhelmingly beautiful; it looks and sounds luxuriously sumptuous throughout.

Our old ticketsThe set in particular is just superb. From my memory, I think it’s scaled down only a tiny bit from the original production but looks just as opulent/mysterious/bleak delete as appropriate, depending on the scene. As in 1986, we were sat directly underneath the notorious chandelier. In the original production the Phantom famously sends the chandelier hurtling down towards the stalls, or, if I remember rightly, what actually happened was that it floated gently like a glittery blancmange and we didn’t feel remotely threatened by it. In this production, it shakes violently and little shards of broken chandelier drops land on your head – very clever and effective. I also loved the way it came to life in the opening auction scene, a brilliant bit of design magic.

Sarah Brightman and Steve BartonThe scenes depicting the staged operas are lavish; the scene where they descend the side of the building to reach the Phantom’s boat is still extraordinarily atmospheric; the owners’ office is plush and comfortable; the rooftop is chilling and threatening. Whilst outstanding in itself, the set never dwarfs the action, rather it becomes an extension of the action, complementing it superbly. Similarly, Scott Ambler’s choreography for the ballet scenes convincingly suggests a highly skilful production of Hannibal or Il Muto, whilst not actually drawing our attention too much from the plot of Phantom. And the orchestra under the direction of Craig Edwards is officially fabulous. Romantic one minute, scary the next, it’s a brilliant score and they give it everything – you’d have thought there was a full symphony orchestra out there.

Michael CrawfordSo what of the performances? And how do they compare with the originals, or is that a really cruel thing to do? For me, there was one absolutely standout performance that was at least as good as back in 1986, and that was Katie Hall as Christine. She looks perfect for the part, in that she is beautiful in a fragile sort of way, and she has a superb, clear, powerful and emotional voice. Her love for both the Phantom and Raoul felt absolutely genuine and gave the love triangle a real bite.

Phantom of the Opera 2012I’m uncertain as to how Raoul ought to be played really. Should he be very keen but a bit wet behind the ears, or should he be dashing and brave and heroic from the off? Simon Bailey’s performance edges towards the heroic by the end but, as Mrs C observed in the interval, despite his reassuring words promising protection to Christine in “All I Ask of You”, Mrs C says she would have had more faith in George Osborne. Nevertheless, he looks right, he’s a very good singer and he got a very warm reception from the audience.

Katie HallActually, this was one of the most genuinely enthusiastic rounds of applause at curtain call we’ve ever heard. Mr Bailey had quite a few cheers, Miss Hall had loads of cheers, and as for Earl Carpenter, playing the Phantom, well, I thought some of the ladies in the audience were going to need St John’s Ambulance assistance. At least I would expect a run on Ventalin from the local pharmacies. For my part, Mr Carpenter has a great voice and can belt out a great tune, but I thought he enunciated some of the lines almost oversensitively; in attempting to convey the Phantom’s heartbreak and internal agonies his voice pussy-footed through some of the lyrics making them a little bit hard to hear. Additionally, there were a couple of times when the Phantom’s disembodied voice is making demands on the other characters, when I felt that he sounded too soft and insufficiently threatening in comparison with the other onstage noises – doubtless a sound engineering/mixing problem. Mrs C said she remembered being totally moved by Michael Crawford’s performance but that this didn’t move her at all. I have to agree, I didn’t quite get the emotion from Mr Carpenter either – but judging from the reception, we were in the minority.

Simon BaileyThe other roles were all performed very well – I particularly liked Elizabeth Marsh as Madame Giry, an excellent mix of the charitable and the domineering, and Angela M Caesar as Carlotta, giving us some superb coloratura and also bringing out the comic elements of the role in a credible, non-pantomime way.

Earl CarpenterA pet hate: all three of the main performers, particularly Mr Bailey, in moments of high emotion, changed “all I ask of you” into “all I ask of yew”. A simple mispronunciation; yew is a type of tree. I may have to set up a campaign for the re-introduction of “yoo”.

Elizabeth MarshAnother pet hate: the front stalls seats in the Milton Keynes Theatre were again a disappointment. We were in Row D this time, with no rake over the two rows in front of us, and not much space to put our knees. We had to inconvenience about fourteen people in order to get to our central seats, and even when people stand up, there’s hardly any room to squeeze past. I hate to think what would happen if you were in desperate need of the loo during a performance; trying to get out would cause row-rage. I’m reasonably tall, and Mrs C is a bit shorter, but neither of us could see what was going on at Stage Left floor level. I understand the Phantom was having a right woeful time of anguish at the prospect of Christine going off with Raoul but frankly from our viewpoint it was just hearsay.

Angela M CaesarHowever on the good side, they seem to have opened up that members’ only club area in the foyer that always looked virtually empty anyway, and used the space to create a piano bar. It gave the foyer so much more atmosphere and warmth, the charming piano playing lent an air of refinement, and by creating another bar counter where people could order drinks, it made the queues for the other bars much shorter, which is eminently practical when a big theatre like the MK is sold out. I do hope it’s going to be a permanent fixture, as it has transformed the vibe of the place completely – well done!