I used to head to Shaftesbury Avenue to catch the West End production of Les Misérables every year on 8th October, until one year (don’t ask me which one) the date fell on a Sunday, and then I couldn’t be bothered after that. The date is significant for keen fans and followers of the show, because the show opened at the Barbican Centre on 8 October 1985, and every year since there has been some sort of gesture, ranging from a low key speech from the lead actor at curtain call to a big concert extravaganza at The O2 Arena.
The other reason I stopped indulging in annual ‘mizery’ on 8th October was – and this will sound snobbish – the behaviour of other theatre patrons. One year the back of my seat was kicked repeatedly by a small child, which is one thing, but another year it was an adult who did it. Then there was that time when some woman in the row behind decided to ‘sing’ (inverted commas mine) along to most of the show in this horrid but noticeable monotone. This year I went along to ‘The Staged Concert’ version, a sort of interregnum (or, if one wished to be unkind, purgatory) between the closure of ‘the original’ production at the Queen’s Theatre, itself a transfer from the Palace Theatre, and the opening of a new production at what is now the Sondheim Theatre, which loses the famed revolve (or turntable), replacing it with superior lighting and illustrated backdrops.
The conduct of those around me this time around wasn’t perfect – the cynic in me thinks the battle for decency and decorum in the stalls is well and truly lost, unfortunately – but at least no phones went off, and those who insisted on talking to one another at full conversational volume did so only briefly (but still…). A concert version does lose some of the intricacies and nuances of a full production – both Fantine (Carrie Hope Fletcher) and Eponine (Shan Ako) die standing up, for instance, and for some reason Ako came across as someone garnering votes for Britain’s Got Talent with every line. At the close of ‘On My Own’, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Ant and/or Dec would then have appeared, telling the audience to call a certain telephone number to place their votes.
It is good for the show to welcome one of its original cast members back to the barricade thirty-four years on, but Michael Ball’s Inspector Javert wasn’t as stern as the character can be, and some of the words were lost (notwithstanding that most of the audience, myself included, knew most if not all of the words anyway) in a lack of clear diction. So much spit was coming out of Mr Ball’s mouth during the Soliloquy, occasionally even spraying the front row, that I wondered if a stagehand was going to appear with a ‘Caution: Wet Floor’ sign.
Alfie Boe’s Jean Valjean is one Les Mis regulars have seen before, and the power in his vocals continues to impress. Earl Carpenter as the Bishop of Digne and then as Bamatabois practically personified the adage attributed to Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) that ‘there are no small parts, only small actors’ – or, to quote Dabbs Greer (1917-2007), ‘every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead’. Katy Secombe as Madame Thénardier was a hoot, as was Stephen Matthews as her husband (standing in for Matt Lucas, who according to his own Twitter was “in bed with tonsillitis and a cough”).
Alfonso Casado Trigo conducted a 26-strong orchestra, and with many cast members having been in Les Misérables before, this proved to be something of a trip down memory lane for regulars. First timers to the show might struggle slightly with understanding the narrative without the staging of a full production (a synopsis is included in the programme) but otherwise it is, as ever, an honour and a privilege to have joined in this crusade.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.