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 – Kinky Boots, Adelphi Theatre, 28th December 2015

Kinky BootsGreetings gentle reader! I trust you had a splendid Christmas and New Year’s break. During the holidays Mrs Chrisparkle and I snuck our way in to see six productions – well, we paid to see them, we didn’t steal in and hope no one would notice. So I’d better start writing about them!

On the conveyor beltFirst up was a trip to the Adelphi Theatre for the matinee performance of Kinky Boots on Monday 28th December. For what it’s worth, in my forty-eight years of theatregoing, these tickets were the most expensive we’ve ever paid for a show – £95. That got us central seats in Row J of the Stalls, and in all fairness they were very good seats indeed. I’m quite fond of the Adelphi; it was one of the first London theatres I visited as a child (to see Charlie Girl in 1969), and it’s quite a treat to enjoy the building if you like a spot of Art Deco.

Lola and the AngelsI had a special interest in seeing this show; not because I’m (particularly) into kinky boots, but because I am a Northampton lad. The only other play or show that I can think of that is set (in part) in Northampton is a couple of scenes in Shakespeare’s King John. It’s so easy to decry one’s hometown – you only have to go to a comedy night when the visiting comic shouts out “What’s Northampton Like?” and at least a sizeable minority will shout back “it’s sh*t!” That happens everywhere. But I really like Northampton. It’s friendly, it’s attractive, it’s varied, it’s well located, it’s good value and it’s a beacon of excellence in The Arts. In my opinion, it’s not remotely sh*t. Shame, then, that one of the characters in Kinky Boots can’t wait to get away from the place and move to happening London, and another of the characters is so Neanderthal and prejudiced in his outlook that he gives the place a bad name. I’ve noted in the past that Northampton audiences may not be the world’s most sophisticated but we are never prejudiced! I remember thinking how great it would have been if Kinky Boots had been premiered at the Royal and Derngate. However, having seen it, I actually think that would have been a considerable mistake as the jibes about the place could easily rub a loyal East Midlander up the wrong way.

Lauren and CharlieNeither of us had seen the film on which the musical is based, but if you need one, here’s a brief outline. Young Charlie Price is heir to a shoe and boot factory in Northampton – Price and Sons. Charlie has no interest in following the family career, and his girlfriend, Nicola, is even less interested (she’s the one who can’t wait to get out). However, Charlie’s father (and director of the business) unexpectedly dies and it’s up to Charlie either to take on the mantle of the factory, or let it fizzle out and with it plunge all the staff into unemployment. Faced with that problem, and much to the dismay of his girlfriend, Charlie decides to give the factory a go. But it’s haemorrhaging money left right and centre. It’s only when he meets Lola – a particularly fabulous drag queen – that he gets the idea of specialising the business into the production of 2 feet 6 inches of tubular sex; a.k.a. glamorous boots that will specifically take the weight of a hefty bloke. Lola is recruited as designer and they aim to launch the range of kinky boots at a fashion show in Milan. But the course of true footwear manufacture never runs smooth, so will their quest be a hit or a miss? Will Charlie establish a successful change in the business, or will it just fold, and become a site for redevelopment into swanky flats as his girlfriend wants. You’ll have to watch the show to find out.

LaurenSometimes shows are precisely as good as you expect them to be; sometimes they’re not the sum of their parts. This is one of those happy occasions where it genuinely exceeds the sum of its parts! It has an excellent pedigree: book by Harvey Fierstein (surely no one’s going to get under the skin of a drag queen as expertly as Mr Fierstein) and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper (the perfect combination of bright pop music and funny/clever/optimistic lyrics). It’s directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, provider of pizazz to such fun shows as Legally Blonde, La Cage Aux Folles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Peter White’s band fairly whacks out the songs with gusto, and David Rockwell’s set is immensely satisfying, from the absolutely perfect depiction of the façade of a typical Northampton Footwear Factory, to a seemingly fully functioning workshop set up inside. The inventive use of factory conveyor belts to create a dynamic and moving platform on which to dance was one of the most enjoyable things I’d seen all year!

Big numberThere are some terrific performances which really bring the show to life – and no more so than the central character of Lola, played by Matt Henry. He brings such personality and joy to the stage that it’s impossible not to smile with him all the way through the show. There’s no mistaking that he’s a big bloke, Lola’s no shrinking violet; and it comes as no surprise that she has a mean uppercut when it comes to defending herself in the boxing ring. Mr Henry has a magnificent voice and stage presence and really does carry the show with him all the way. When he dresses and appears as his true self – Simon from Clacton – it’s amazing how he visibly self-diminishes into a meek and subdued person; it’s as though he is playing two characters. I also really loved the performance of Amy Lennox as Lauren, the factory worker who takes Charlie to task and challenges him to make a go of the business. She has a brilliant song, The History of Wrong Guys, which is pure Cyndi Lauper, where she tries her utmost not to fall in love with Charlie – and then gives up trying. It’s extremely funny but also very sincerely and rather movingly performed.

Real bootsKillian Donnelly plays Charlie Price with surefooted ease. Although he’s the main character, it’s not the most interesting role, as much of what takes place happens to him or for him rather than by him. But I did enjoy the developing friendship between him and Lola and there’s no doubt that Mr Donnelly is a very safe pair of hands and has a great voice. Amy Ross plays his girlfriend Nicola with a nice degree of hard-heartedness; Jamie Baughan takes on the role of Don, the homophobic Neanderthal, which can’t be an easy experience in a show like this, and you really believe what a nasty piece of work he is. The six actors who play The Angels also make very convincing and entertaining drag queens. In fact, I’ll let you into a secret – it was only when I read the cast list during the interval that I realised the performers were all men. I thought that probably at least one was; and maybe a couple of the others looked a bit rough; but I had no idea they all were! Simple, innocent me.

Charlie and NicolaAll in all a very entertaining and well produced show which kept the audience happy throughout. I can even forgive it (just about) for being so negative about Northampton. I’m sure it will do great business!

Angels and LolaP.S. Those flats that Nicola wanted to create from the shell of the factory – they’re described as luxury riverside apartments. Riverside? Yes, we do have the good old River Nene but it goes nowhere near the Boot and Shoe Quarter (as the Council has rechristened The Mounts). Back to the drawing board with that one, literally.

In the officeP.P.S. We discovered that the husband of an ex-colleague of Mrs C went to school with the original Kinky Boots Man on whom this story is based. Fiction and fact colliding in the streets of Northamptonshire, who would have believed it? Apparently the factory has closed again. Ah well, at least they made a good musical out of it.

Production photos by Johan Persson.