Sondheim Theatre, London ★★★✩✩
MUCH has been made of the modern update the Boublil and Schonberg juggernaut received ten years ago by incoming directors Laurence Connor and James Powell. It pointed to this deathless West End chestnut’s evolution as a period musical that stayed with the times.
That leaner new production, which dispensed with much of the gloom of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original revolve staging, is precisely what you get in this ‘new’ Les Mis show. In truth, though, it merely heralds the reopening of the spectacularly renovated and newly named-Sondheim Theatre (formerly, the Queen’s Theatre). Despite all the claims, this remains a very old-fashioned show. Its epic stories of love and death amid the 1830 French revolution and brooding, Blake-ian sense of urban gothic are carried by operatic strengths of feeling that barely let up over its three-hour run.
Melodrama is Les Mis’s DNA of course, but the first half goes at such a lick one hardly has time to get to know Carrie Hope Fletcher’s sweet-voiced Fantine before she is expiring on her death bed — a demise that seems to take less than 30 seconds. Jon Robyns hits his opening scenes as the convict Valjean breaking his parole — and making vengeful Javert his life-long nemesis — at such a pitch you fear he might soon expire too. There’s an awful lot of emoting going on (and unimaginative staging, too) at the expense of vocal expression.
Things quieten down in the second half and become more ruminative. Harry Apps and Shan Ako as Marius and Eponine deliver the two stand-out performances while Josefina Gabrielle and Ian Hughes are very funny as the crooked Thenardiers.
Matt Kinley’s pictorial set, with projections from design company 59 Productions, is nicely immersive and the score is blissful. The finale, Do You Hear The People Sing? is still utterly heart-stirring. Not quite a rebirth then, but in its way still magnifique.