We went to see the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables at the Barbican last night. Within the first minute it became clear that the production is very different from the original. Different as in better or worse? No, we came to the conclusion it was just different. All of which shows the ultimate influence a production team has on the base material of a show.
One major reason would be this production does away with the stage revolve, necessarily requiring quite major changes to settings. The iconic barricade trucks are different too; similar in use but looking a little less obvious in other scenes. A pair of downstage full height trucks in the form of buildings that could be pushed fully on to the centreline were clever.
Some of the setting seemed, on reflection, more in keeping with the words compared to the original show. An example being the more nautically themed opening scenes. Some of it less so; example being ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ set against a bare stage with a bunch of candles on the floor. Inspector’s Javert’s jump off the bridge was brilliant and definitely better than original; sewer scenes set against an animated cyc were also different but no more or less dramatic than the original. The music was, refreshingly, a constant, although there were clearly quite a few changes to the score and a puzzling cut to the ‘Little People’ song.
In terms of the cast the standouts were John Owen-Jones (Jean Valjean), Earl Carpenter (Inspector Javert), Jon Robyns (Enjoiras) and Rosalind James (Éponine). Gareth Gates found his voice in the second act but to my eye never looked completely comfortable with the acting elements. Odd observation but I suspect his overall look might have been softened if he had been wearing the rather striking blond wig sported by Enjoiras.
The lighting design really caught my attention; quite minimalist in terms of colour palette, with hardly any high-up front of house fill and heavy use of on-stage side- and back-lighting, plus some hard worked boom positions at actor height. The expected blue-white-red tricolour backlight didn’t materialise at the end of Act 1, a very clear signal that the production was ground-up different.
As far as I could tell quite a lot of the lighting was either intelligent or had colour changers. Four followspots were kept busy all evening, mostly with soft-edged head and shoulders fill that generally worked well although when they moved suddenly in the constant haze you became a bit more aware of them.
I was completely intrigued by this approach to the lighting design and mostly liked it although there were moments where I felt the production verged on underlit, with, in contrast, occasional bursts of often intense open white highlight that sometimes over-egged the moment. Having now looked at the credentials of lighting designer Paule Constable I’m not entirely sure I’m well qualified to comment and my thoughts were further moderated when I realised it was Constable who created Lee 742 Bram Brown, a colour I used extensively when lighting Blitz last year. Bram, it turns out, is Paule’s son. I’m really keen to see another production that she has lit, to see how it compares.
Les Misérables completes its UK tour this coming Saturday after just 22 performances at the Barbican. It will long remain in my memory as a refreshingly different take on what remains my favourite show.