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BrumHour saw Les Misérables at the invite of Birmingham Hippodrome.
For Brum Radio’s Interval Theatre, Emily Owens spoke about being part of the UK Touring cast of Les Misérables as it returns to Birmingham.
By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/elle_lawson
Review: Les Misérables returns to Birmingham Hippodrome
Directed by James Powell music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel
Musicals, as with all other art forms, will go in and out of vogue, as the public imagination flits from trend to trend. But more than any other, Les Miserables is a steadfast object of public adoration. You can always tell in the midst of an audience just how much it has played its symphony upon their heartstrings. The applause at Les Miserables was instant, primal, and overpowering. People just can’t get enough of Les Mis.
The sprawling epic is set in the midst of unrest and a doomed revolution in early 19th century France. The propulsive force throughout the plot is the cat and mouse chase between Jean Valjean (Dean Chisnall) and Javert (Nic Greenshields), after Valjean skips out on his parole after 19 years of hard labour. All for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s child, who was “close to death”.
Chisnall is the beating heart of the piece and an utterly enigmatic Jean Valjean. As a prisoner and then an outcast, burdened by the weight of the world, Chisnall plays Valjean like a feral cat – snarling at its foes, cowering at those who could hurt him. Chisnall’s sheer talent is evident when you see Valjean’s reinvention – you can barely believe it’s the same man stood before you. He’s charming and empathetic, exuding love for Fantine, Cosette, and Marius. It’s an incredible performance.
Alongside Chisnall, Rachelle Ann Go as Fantine and Nathania Ong as Eponine are truly sublime with the most powerful vocal performances of the show. Rachelle Ann Go is a veteran Fantine, and I was particularly excited to watch her take on the desperate mother. If Jean Valjean starts as a feral cat, then Fantine is a little bird – gossamer-like, delicate and vulnerable, haunted by the spectre of the future she never had.
And while Fantine is one side of the coin of female heartbreak, Eponine is the other. Nathania Ong is a revelatory newcomer as Eponine. She’s hardened by the world she lives in, darting around the streets of Paris like a rat when we first see her. Despite her bleeding heart as she watches the love of her life fall for somebody else, she is tough, and On My Own evolves from a wistful mourning for the man she loves to an acerbic cry at the lot she has been dealt in life. It’s a staggering performance.
Then there’s Javert (Nic Greenshields) – the antagonist of the piece, who is a metonym for the system which wreaks so much misery. Javert has built his whole ethical worldview around the fact that people must obey the law. Those who don’t have committed moral and state treason and should be punished by the carceral system – effectively exiled from society. There is no reasoning behind this mentality. Stealing a loaf of bread to feed a dying child? A good man would never break the law, regardless.
But it’s the system that has perpetuated so much misery throughout the world of the play. Valjean broke the law to save the most vulnerable of all in society – an ill child. Fantine is seen as a moral outcast for having a daughter out of wedlock. A “fallen woman”, Fantine’s only chance of survival is selling sex – “what can I do, it pays a debt?” The Thenardiers’ steal from the living and the dead, but are the cockroaches of the Parisian ecosystem. When countless others have died, they survive – by keeping their heads down and swindling money out of other’s pockets and gold from their teeth.
All because of the gulf between the rich and poor. Jean Valjean can only reform himself with the help of financial aid from the church, and he rescues Cosette from a fate like Eponine by lifting her out of poverty. Marius, while a revolutionary, is a rich student, and can escape the worst of the world through his money.
When the smoke finally clears and Javert can see the reality of the world he is entrenched in, of the system he has perpetuated, it breaks him. Greenshields’ unravelling is spectacular to see, with stunning choreography and set design as he reckons with the life he has chosen to lead.
Two centuries later and we still live in the same world. We may have won more battles, but a quick look at the people around you, the people on the streets, the people in office, shows blinding similarities. As you blink back tears and watch the ghosts of the characters who lost their lives fighting for a better world, you think more about the future coming for us all.
Les Misérables is at Birmingham Hippodrome until 27th August 2022. Limited tickets are still available here: birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/les-miserables-2