Les Misérables

Birmingham Hippodrome


What a show! It’s the same stirring, tragic story, full of emotion and songs we have grown to know like old friends but Victor Hugo’s classic tale of love, revolution and redemption has been given a makeover.

Theatre has moved on since Les Mis launched to indifferent, even hostile reviews in 1985, and this new production, an update of the 2009 production, has taken everything on board to create a stunning visual and audio adventure.

The cast shines bright in this spectacular production but shining the brightest are the main protagonists Dean Chisnall as Jean Valjean and Nic Greenshields as Javert.

Valjean being the wanted man, released on parole after 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. He turns his life around and becomes a pillar of society, and Javert, the ex-jailer, now police inspector whose life's driving force is to find Valjean and return him to jail for a minor breach of his parole conditions.

Chisnall is no stranger to the Hippodrome, we interviewed him back in 2015 when he appeared as Shrek and he was back again in 2016 as an impressive Narrator in that other favourite among musicals, Blood Brothers.

He gives us a whole range as Valjean from the near animal released from the brutal chain gang to the compassionate mayor and father figure to the kindly dying old man still protecting the child he had promised to bring up as his own. Valjean’s big moment is Bring Him Home and Chisnall raises goosebumps with a showstopper which was right up there with the best in the role.

javert and valjean

Nic Greenshields as Javert and Dean Chisnall as Jean Valjean

Greenshields is a bit of a problem. Javert is a bully, a stickler for the rules, obsessed to the point of psychotic with Valjean, who is a criminal for the most minor of reasons. We should hate him, but it is hard with a baritone voice that good as he commands the stage in Stars and with his moving Soliloquy as his world and reason fall apart.

Every word of fugitive and nemesis as clear as a bell, every note true and while the pair battle it out the women have their own story to tell.

Rachelle Ann Go is a fine Fantine, the innocent unmarried mother forced out of Valjean’s factory into prostitution to support her daughter, Cosette. She turns I dreamed a Dream from a bittersweet song of despair into a defiant anthem taking the audience with her all the way.

Nathania Ong as Éponine wasn’t holding back either with her big number On My Own, her song of unrequited love given some real wellie in her torrent of anguish. On her own? By the end everyone was with her.

Marius is the idealistic student, who falls for Cosette in a love triangle with Éponine, who loves him but he only sees her as just his best friend. On Press night he was played by understudy Caleb Lagayan and when the chance comes, understudies have to grab it with both hands, and Caleb did in a performance full of exuberant life and enthusiasm. The sad Empty Chairs at Empty Tables his highlight number.

The musical centres on the anti-monarchist Paris Uprising in June 1832 which lasted for just two days, and, incidentally, saw Victor Hugo, inadvertently trapped behind the barricades with bullets flying around him.

That is balanced by some wonderful comedy from RSC regular Ian Hughes as the chancer Thénardier, the inn keeper Master of the House  who with his wife, played by Helen Walsh, were being paid by Fantine to look after Cosette.

She was used as slave labour and a valuable asset with her non-existent medical and other bills. To say the Thénardiers were a thieving pair was a gross understatement. They could steal your shadow if you passed by a light, nick you rings and fingernails if you shook hands – and always best count your fingers afterwards as well.


Ian Hughes as Thénardier with his wife, played by Helen Walsh aiming for higher pickings

They also ran a gang of footpads and con artists whose audacity was balanced by a near total lack of competence in what was a glorious comic performance from Hughes.

Samuel Wyn-Morris is an excellent Enjolras, the flag waving student leader who leads the uprising with Do You Hear The People Sing and there was superb support from a fine ensemble to create theatrical magic and remind us what we have missed in two years of pestilence and lockdowns.

The sets in this production are based on the paintings and drawings of Hugo, who saw them as a private pleasure, never allowing them to be exhibited, yet when revealed they show him as an early exponent of impressionism.

The setting all dim and gloom from Matt Kinley, looking like a gothic painting  opens up a new star, the lighting from Paule Constable, which is worth a bow on its own.

Each number, each scene is lit with purpose and maximum effect, sometimes subtle as at the moment when Fantine breathes her last, sometimes dramatic as in the final battle on the barricades when instead of gunshots we had light shots, flashes of stark, cold, white searchlight  beams dancing a ballet of death, picking out individual rebels dying in crossfire shafts of light. The choreography of cast and lighting for that scene was exceptional, its effect memorable.

The use of backlighting of individuals in numbers also adds to the effect and drama in what is an everchanging and well thought out light show.

Positioning is also clever at the end of numbers and scenes, leaving cast or individuals stationary for a moment to create a scene like a 19th century gothic portrait or a patriotic painting.

Mick Pottter’s sound can take a bow as well. I have friends who saw Les Mis on Broadway and went to sleep . . . don’t ask . . . but there is no chance of that here! At times this is a wall of sound, but never out of control or loud just for loud’s sake. It is always well balanced, quiet passages distinct and audible, anthems given their head, all helped by a 14 piece orchestra conducted by musical director Ben Ferguson.

Fourteen strong is huge in touring terms and it really does show with an orchestral sound which is rich, full bodied and has a timbre electronics just can't match.

Cameron Mackintosh's production, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, might have been given an exciting, wonderful new look, but underneath it is still the some old friend, the same tragic story and the same glorious music which will be ringing out at the Hippodrome to 27-08-22.

Roger Clarke


Victor Hugo’s huge novel was slammed by the critics when it came out in 1862 only saved by frantic sales as Hugomania took over among the public, here we looked at where it all started.  

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