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South Pacific – Sadler’s Wells

South Pacific (by Johan Persson)

A year ago, theatre was tentatively recovering from long months of closure and the possibility of covid disrupted performances that could stop an entire run in its tracks. Under these conditions, Chichester Festival Theatre served up one of the shows of the year – a production that many of us could only enjoy as a pre-recorded digital stream. But the screen was no barrier to the consuming magic of Daniel Evans’s South Pacific, a contemporary and rather savvy reinterpretation of arguably the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of them all, a score in which almost every glorious song is known beyond its original story. Now, the production is touring the UK with many of the original cast members and its original leads, allowing those who only saw it remotely to finally enjoy it live.

Sadler’s Wells rarely stages or accepts musicals although Singin’ in the Rain has stopped here recently and the production values now demanded by Matthew Bourne’s company, Northern Ballet and, most recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet are inherently theatrical and akin to big musical shows – Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote and Kenneth Tindell’s Casanova were a masterclass in storytelling using props, set and costume designed by Christopher Oram who frequently works on drama. And Sadler’s Wells has a vast stage, perfect for the ensemble dance element of shows like South Pacific which require plenty of room for spectacle in which the sweeping vistas of military life confront all kinds of civilians on a mystical Tonkinese island. Evans’s production, even in its touring form, requires a revolve, large set blocks that represent the naval base, Emile’s plantation and the mysterious Bali Ha’i as well as the tonal shifts demanded by acts of war and epic love stories for which Sadler’s Wells provides ample space.

Whether watching at home or in person, South Pacific is a complex proposition, not just in size and scale of its multiple islands setting at the end of the Second World War as American naval and marine forces take on their Japanese equivalents, but any new production must also navigate audience expectation based on the, rather jolly, 1958 film starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brassi, as well as the weight of all those almost too famous songs. Music can take on a life of its own, divorced from the context of it original setting where it resides amongst a suite of related music telling a wider, often more complicated, narrative than a single song can convey. But the popularity of the songs in South Pacific, a favourite at musical theatre concerts, Proms and cabaret performances, mean that the jaunty melodiousness of Richard Rodger’s music can even overcome the weighter meaning of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. Seeing these songs out of context or via the lighter 50s Technicolor film, an audience, eager to be entertained, can come to the auditorium expecting to be carried away by the romance and the fun of South Pacific without fully reckoning with the darker undertones and alternative emphasis that has always existed in this music.

What makes Evans’s interpretation of South Pacific so magnificent and so powerful, is how skillfully the creative team draw those elements to the surface without losing a shred of the show’s bouncy and exotic charm. As was so abundantly clear on screen, this production openly grapples with concepts of occupation that the arrival of the US troops represents, it deals with the racism that runs through the show in the attitudes to and presentation of native characters while equally considering the, now queasier, prospect of coercion and powerplay in the interactions between white men with guns and very young women that have only ever represented the male gaze. In short, this South Pacific is remarkably honest about itself while still sending you home with a hopeful heart.

Musical theatre has a troubled relationship with presentations of war, the requirements of the form sanitising the experience of men in combat scenarios. The three jolly sailors arriving in New York for a good time in On the Town or in LA for Anchors Away are not fighters or killers jaded by months at sea but dancers and singers getting into innocent japes with the girls they meet. A similar Gene Kelly vehicle It’s Always Fair Weather features happy-go-lucky veterans as does White Christmas where they form a charming song and dance troupe after the war with no sign of PTSD or survivor’s guilt. Even the now controversial Miss Saigon is a Madame Butterfly-inspired tale of epic love that plays down the business and consequences of war for the combatant and those they encounter.

This production of South Pacific understands the wider impact of occupation better than any musical interpretations of modern times. And in what is initially a happy place of love and larks, the arrival of Lieutenant Cable signals a notable dramatic shift. An harbinger of the emotional doom to come, he casts a shadow over the proceedings, an unknowingly self-destructive figure whose arrival with orders to undertake a special mission behind enemy lines signals the beginning of the end for US forces in the region as well as creating negative ramifications for his own life and those he abandons – with huge ethical consequences for the local people used and then left with little to show for it.

This tension starts to creep into Evans’s South Pacific, barely perceptibly at first, but military need increasingly begins to displace the romanticism of this particular story. Even Cable’s first visit to the enchanting Bali Ha’i has a touch of melancholy beneath the surface despite the stunning design by Peter McKintosh working with Howard Harrison to create a rich and seductive lightscape in tones of purple, orange and blue illuminated by candlelight. Cable may be captivated by Liat – a moment this production ensures we know is fed entirely by his months of loneliness and the impossible distance of real life back home – but in singing Younger Than Springtime he almost knows already that this is a decision he will eventually pay heavily for, a desperation underpinning the way this song is presented that starts to address the problematic presentation of this relationship, the respective ages of the characters and the power imbalance within the show.

That from this point on Cable is seen to pay for his weakness is pointed, soon contracting a malarial infection from which he never recovers and, eventually, choosing duty over infatuation. Unable to say yes to Bloody Mary’s proposition, this is a consequence that feels like a self-inflicted punishment for the wrong he knows he has done to their family, one that perhaps leads him to a noble military sacrifice but a far cry from the traditional military musical male. The downbeat repositioning of Happy Talk becomes a symbol of this more nuanced examination of inappropriate involvement with the local women, one that leaves them with nothing but regrets and only the male plantation owners to fall back on.

But the show also feels this tonal creep in other areas, moving from external relationships to activities principally on the naval base or in its service. While the focus of the first half of the show is primarily on interactions with local civilians and the exoticism of the region, the second part forces military discipline back into the show as the plot moves to the consequences of occupation. It may start with a light-hearted variety show for the men but Evans creates a parting of the ways as the focus shifts to Cable and de Becque’s mission, filling the stage with military paraphernalia, a giant map of the region and, eventually, plans to evacuate the area. Clearly, the party is over and, with a remarkable lack of sentimentality the real reason for the occupation takes over. Once that is achieved, they depart without a second thought for what they have left in their wake, the pain on Bloody Mary’s face a cue for the audience to consider what right they had to be there at all.

Yet Evans may also, like Nellie, be A Cockeyed Optimist, because his production finds a deep and true love between its principal characters, one that contrasts so meaningfully with the terrible toll of Cable and Liat. Even on screen, the centrality of the Emile-Nellie love story was clear and this production makes better sense of it than any before. From the very first moments of South Pacific as it opens on the deck of Emile’s plantation, the complimentarities and connection between these two quite different people are clear, so the trials and tribulations that inevitably follow make their coming together all the sweeter.

It isn’t easy to pitch an epic love story in our more cynical times and while the rest of the production looks to challenge the cosy image of South Pacific, the purpose of this relationship reinforces the glorious sweep of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music for the couple. There is an innocence in their feeling for each other that is far purer, far more reliable than the terrible price of Cable’s semi-lust for Liat and for whom he is a romantic escape from a less suitable man. But Nellie and Emile have a more adult connection in a way, built on a greater openness about themselves that the events of the story reveal while able to overcome the prejudicial barriers that are thrown up between them. What they offer to each other in this interpretation is an honesty about what they want from one another and it gives the show a rich emotional heart that is very affecting.

Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck have an extraordinary radiating chemistry that easily made it through a screen last year and fills the auditorium at Sadler’s Wells, giving depth and meaning to those sung declarations of love and pain that result from their actions. In the great acoustics of this space, Beck’s vocal is beautiful particularly in the heartfelt I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy but just as charming and full of musical joy in the big sequence pieces like Honey Bun and I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, capturing exactly Nellie’s likability and spirit as well as the touching certainty of her feeling for Emile. The moral turpitude that Nellie experiences as Emile’s secrets are revealed is given an edge by Beck, an unreasonableness that adds a helpful shade to the simplicity of Nellie’s character, a recognition that she feels deeply and this makes her eventually deserving of him.

Ovenden is equally outstanding, his powerful voice surging through the room in Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine, two gloriously realised ballads that build to a heart-wrenching poignancy. Less remote than some interpretations, Ovenden’s Emile is a far warmer, more jovial character who in turn is a good father and a man decent enough to turn his complicated past into a willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. In a character whose essential purity and goodness shines through, only the hardest of hearts could fail to be half in love with this Emile by the end of the show and the essential stillness in Ovenden’s performance has a powerful charisma.

Also reprising their original roles, Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary has real agency, a successful entrepreneur just as happy to do business with the US marines as plantation owners. Ultimately a mother trying to support her family and get the best deal for her daughter, Ampil’s Mary sets the tone with mournful but impactful versions of Happy Talk and Bali Ha’i. Rob Houchen is superb as the broken Lieutenant Cable, quickly dissolving and almost unable to bear either the absence of the girl he loves or the knowledge of his actions. Houchen’s performance of Younger Than Springtime is a treat while his rapid decline is movingly portrayed.

This is a smart and thoughtful interpretation of South Pacific that takes carefully considered approach to some of the problems in the scenario without fully absolving the characters for their behaviour and choices. Managing to balance the sparkle of the big set-pieces and the not so charming effects of military occupation with some serious emotional clout that will leave you wrung through at the end, this sets the standard against which future productions will be judged. With a UK tour running until November, Bali Ha’i is calling you, don’t resist.

South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells until 28 August followed by a UK tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Streaming South Pacific – Chichester Festival Theatre

South Pacific - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

Now that was some enchanted evening! The Chichester Festival Theatre revival of South Pacific, delayed from 2020, made a critically acclaimed debut a few weeks ago and in early August offered its first streamed performances, a handful of which are available throughout the run. A true piece of hybrid theatre, it was filmed on opening night and is made available to ticketholders for 24-hours at the designated time – a compromise position given the possibility of isolation rules causing live performance cancellations later in the run. But the streamed performance is gloriously managed, capturing the visual spectacle of director Daniel Evans’s vision as well as the darker themes in the story that quite carefully reconsider the effect of combat and conquest in what can now be a troubling piece.

An early adopter of digital streaming, Chichester was among the first to make some of its archive shows available at the start of the pandemic which ultimately became a useful revenue stream when the free availability of the beautiful Flowers for Mrs Harris resulted in a socially distant and audience-free cast reunion at the venue to produce a saleable soundtrack recording. Other pre-recorded shows followed and soon the commitment to live-streaming Carol Churchill’s Crave proved a savvy decision when the venue reopened for only a few days before the second lockdown in November 2020 and all remaining performances were moved online.

Now relative experts at capturing their shows on film, Chichester has learnt much about live editing and the demands of creating a show that will be watched simultaneously online and in the theatre. The result is South Pacific, a digital stream that may not be live but feels almost like being there. In fact, in some ways it may even be advantageous, giving the home audience a better-than-front-row view of the performance that immerses us in the story and creates a tighter focus around this interpretation’s particular themes.

Favouring the love affair between Nellie and Emile, like the Open Air Theatre’s Carousel, this Rodgers and Hammerstein reimagined for a twenty-first century remote audience without losing the immediacy and sweeping romance of this luscious score – arguably one of their greatest and most haunting combinations of melody. The transfer is seamless, managed by Evans to ensure the show’s more intimate and psychological moments are treated with the same care as capturing the big set piece numbers which are arguably enhanced by the proximity of the camera and its ability to create pace, energy and fluidity to reflect some of Evans’s more fascinating creative choices.

Often a light-hearted and sprightly piece, this version of South Pacific has a real understanding of the complexities and darker impact of conflict taking place in this deceptively dangerous paradise. It is striking how well Evans has understood and represents the combat experience in blue-tinged official spaces filled with maps, data and military rigidity that serve as a permanent reminder of quite how much is at stake both for the soldiers individually and the balance of power in the war. Part of Chichester’s approach to repositioning the troubling elements of South Pacific – that reflect its 1940s origins – is to really focus on the changing service experience as the allure of the islands and the relative leisure time of the men and nurses becomes increasingly consumed by the business of war, and Evans’s approach finds greater darkness as the shadow of invasion creeps in.

A master stroke is to turn the chirpy mid-show ditty Happy Talk performed by Bloody Mary into a tearing tragedy, a minor key triumph that entirely recasts the song and finds a whole new resonance that utterly transforms the piece and the trajectory of Lieutenant Cable in particular. Rather than a distracting love affair full of youth, romance and exoticism – and let’s not forget the queasier knowledge of a man old enough to know better cheating on his fiancée with an adolescent sold as a virtual prostitute by her mother to the highest bidder be they marine or French plantation owner – instead becomes a grand but doomed romance that reflects Cable’s later malarial malaise, something which condemns him from the moment the relationship is contracted. What is so fascinating in Evans’s production is the extent to which they both know it right then, hence the somber tone in which Bloody Mary now so perfectly expresses her song.

As a digital viewer, you are given an intimacy with this moment that no present audience member can experience. A tight focus on the trio and the fatal effect this has on all their lives. Placing a camera in the midst of that swirling of emotion at the point of damnation and with that taste of disaster on their lips is astonishing, amplifying their soured happiness in a way that entirely transcends the screen between you. Rob Houchen’s performance of Younger than Springtime is outstanding but when, later, Cable’s fate is sealed, the weight of this earlier moment hangs over them all taking on the proportions almost of Greek tragedy in the extent that Cable’s self-sacrificing determination following his incapacitation is in direct response to his consumption with Liat. It adds so meaningfully to the brutal aspect of the paradise island and, while they may be the heroes of this story, it questions the impact that American soldiers and sailors (themselves invaders of this land) had on the landscape and its people. It is an extraordinary emotional and moving repositioning of one of the show’s liveliest songs, and one that thematically and politically makes absolute sense in this smart reimagining.

But if its spectacle you’re after than this digital screening doesn’t disappoint, showcasing the energy and beauty of Ann Yee’s choreography which uses the revolve to create storytelling moments, ones that are always underscored by the mixed emotion and unachievable fantasy that this Tonkinese island offers. Notably in the show’s opening moments, a beautiful lone dancer whose peace and serenity is woven through the choreography finds her space overtaken by naval officers and marines abseiling into position and surrounding the local woman with their marching dance rhythm. As we see elsewhere in this classy interpretation, Americans may be on the winning side but they too are enforced aliens claiming temporary control of this land.

This version of South Pacific finds a visual, almost cinematic, language in these moments to convey the mixture of fun and fantasy that the Polynesian islands represent captured in the sprightlier numbers like Nothing Like a Dame or I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair as the American characters have a jolly time. On screen these exude comradeship and community – and let’s not forget this is not a group of friends together by choice, but a company of naval personnel thrown together for a strategic, combative purpose who grab the opportunity to live in the moment because, for some of them, it may be their last. That knowledge makes these numbers feel so alive and within their gendered groups they are entirely at ease with one another in these strange and strangely beautiful circumstances, giving it a Technicolor glory that really shines on screen. But then the shadows fall, sometimes physically, and Evans ensures every moment is tinged by the reality around them, with each stage picture edged with black as though these are brief memories picked out amidst a massing inevitable darkness.

The counterpoint to that is to bring such warmth to the relationship between Nellie and Emile so their attraction to one another feels far more substantial than ever before. Some of that is certainly enhanced by the proximity of the camera which shows their growing attraction to one another and builds quite a realistic connection between them. But this Emile is also a far warmer and less remote figure than earlier interpretations, helped by a less pronounced age gap than on film which brings a new perspective to this couple.

Rossano Brazzi certainly made for a debonair love interest in the movie, suave, charming and with a romantic vocal swell, yet he retained a forbidding quality, an aloof diginity that played better in the 1950s than perhaps it does now. Chichester’s central couple are on a more equal footing, one not solely based on her beauty and his wealth, but by finding complimentarities in personality and eventually their mutual ability to reassess their values in light of their love for one another. Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck bring a wonderful lightness and sense of humour to their roles which explains why the lonely Emile would be drawn to the wholesome American exuberance that Nellie offers. They laugh together, find joy in the same things and feel far more like a meeting of minds than in previous versions.

On screen that chemisty is just luminous, their scenes together the absolute heart of this wonderful show and utterly transporting. Lit by Howard Harrison on Peter McKintosh’s wonderful villa set design, Emile undergoes a Bogart-like transformation within the narrative, and just like Rick in Casblanca his journey becomes one of welcoming him ‘back to the fight’, a transition that Ovenden manages with particular care, even a delicate beauty. The sincerity of his almost too innocent love for Nellie, reverberating so powerfully through Some Enchanted Evening (the song of songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon) reels into aching heartbreak in This Nearly Was Mine, prompting his decision to put himself in danger to help the American marines. That Ovenden’s Emile is a man of passion and sensitivity who is thus awakened to dignity, bravery and manly decency earns his happy ending in much the same fate-guided way that Cable’s questionable choices decide his.

Beck’s role-sharing Nellie is a difficult character to sell to modern audiences as well, sweet as apple pie for most of the show but displaying a fiercely racist and unbending attitude that is both narrow-minded and quite damning for a leading lady. But Beck navigates through it all with real skill, demonstrating a thoughtless quality in Nellie rather than a malicious belief system that undercuts some of the troubling elements of her character and makes her transformation more convincing when being on the island opens her eyes to broader, more tolerant ways of living. Beck and Ovenden have a wonderful chemistry, giving their love songs a tender feeling that makes you root for them to shift just enough to live happily ever after.

Perhaps Evans’s most interesting and welcome advancement is to reconsider how the Tonkinese characters are represented by offering a restrained and more humanly rounded impression of a mother and daughter trying to survive. Gone are the comedy accents and wistful, nubile compliance and instead Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary becomes both an entrepreneurial woman taking advantage of the strangers on her island to exploit them while seeking to build a future for her family knowing that they will soon be gone. Liat (Sera Maehara) too is given choreography exploring her innocence, a love of nature and self-contentedness which the arrival of Cable upsets, and while there is still much that remains uncomfortable about the way Mary brings that relationship about, these women have become far more then vessels for male desire or the two-dimensional butt of their jokes.

The dawn of hybrid theatre and the opportunity to watch current shows from home has naturally caused some concern about the longer-term effect on in-person audience attendance but offering a handful of digital performances is no threat to that, it even encourages future engagement. This joyous production of South Pacific is a case in point because however impractical all you’ll want to do at the end of this stream is jump on the next train to Chichester to see it all over again, live.

South Pacific is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 September with a selection of streamed performances throughout the remaining run from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Les Miserables: The Stage Concert – Gielgud Theatre

Les Miserables The Staged Concert - Gielgud Theatre

After 34 uninterrupted years, Les Misérables has a strong claim to be the greatest musical ever written and 2019 is proving to be one of the most memorable in its history. Victor Hugo’s redemptive tale of an ex-convict discovering his lost soul through the love of a child amidst the revolutionary fervor of the Parisian underworld received a starry six-part BBC period drama by Andrew Davies earlier this year and it is a story that continues to captivate. But in 1985 it was beautifully and evocatively adapted by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricst Alain Boublil (English translation by Herbert Kretzmer), condensing Hugo’s broad sweep and focus on compassion for all of humanity into a neat three-hour show. Les Misérables is nothing if not a call to arms, a melodious message to fight for the things that matter and above all to be kind, to ask yourself whether “You Hear the People Sing?”

Having previously been staged at the Barbican and a long run at the Palace Theatre, Les Misérables moved into the Queen’s Theatre in 2004. But the soon to be renamed Sondheim Theatre is being renovated before the touring version is (somewhat controversially for fans of the original revolve) permanently installed on Shaftesbury Avenue. So, producer Cameron Mackintosh has stripped back his most well-known show to create a staged concert version running at the neighbouring Gielgud Theatre for four months which will allow Les Misérables to retain its position as longest running West End show.

It’s actually a rather canny move and one that speaks nicely to the show’s own performance history. Concert versions have been staged for key anniversaries, welcoming back a fantasy league of theatre stars who have passed through its UK and International ranks but never appeared together. Most recently the 25th Anniversary Concert was held at the O2 in 2010 but it was the 10th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall that has never been bettered – Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, Ruthie Henshall as Fantine, Alan Armstrong as Thénardier, Lea Salonger as Éponine and Michael Ball as the original and definitive Marius.

With directing credits for James Powell and Jean Pierre Van Der Spuy, this new version is essentially semi-staged in what is a fully acted approach from the cast with performers in costume to embody their character and some props. It uses a technically excellent but also meaningful lighting design primarily to shift between the many locations of Hugo’s story as well as the 15 or so years that it covers. The prepared stage opens with a lighting rig crashed like a barricade across the space which rises up to reveal four large microphone stands during those famous opening bars.

The lighting design is particularly striking, emphasising the changing moods and purpose of the vocals. One of Les Misérables  most notable features are the generous solos given to all the key characters that rapidly and effectively reveal their psychological state, motivations and often tragic pre-history. These are lit with care, picking out the more spiritual conversations of Valjean, Fantine and later Javert in bright white and pale blue, changing the intensity of the spotlights or combining them as the singer peaks, while opting for darker purples and greens for the murkier scenarios including Cosette’s childhood enslavement and the Thénardier sewer.

Most notable though is how vividly the team create the feeling of violent action at the barricade, bathing the stage in red light as the stationary students are picked-off one by one with blasts of white light like individual bullets darting across the stage to their target. It is a key scene in the fully staged version on a real barricade that lingers on their sacrifice during ‘The Final Battle’, but is cleverly and effectively rendered on the smaller Gielgud stage here.

Powell and Van Der Spuy also maintain the audience’s attention with a number of small moments that prevent the show from seeming too static including a meaningful approach to character entrances and exits. Matt Kinley has designed three routes to the stage with a staircase at the back between choir stalls that house the ensemble and a metal gantry that lowers into place from above to create variation in height and volume – although core performances are all given at the downstage microphones. Departing performers freeze in their final moments to cast meaningful glances that summarise their struggles; Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Fantine reacts to her daughter Cosette crossing her path, while Shan Ako’s Éponine turns to offer-up a final glance at Marius as she departs. These moments add poignancy and credibility to the performances, a concert version that still ably creates and conveys Hugo’s world.

Like its predecessors, 2019’s Les Misérables: The Staged Concert will be long remembered as another notable event in the musical’s performance history, heralding the return of Michael Ball to a show he helped to establish, but this time in the role of Javert. Recently, Ball was described as the last great musical star, with fame extending beyond the regular theatre-going audience. Now a household name with TV and radio success, a Eurovision runner-up in the days when the UK stood a chance, and chart success as well as frequent appearances in shows from Aspects of Love to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweeney Todd and Hairspray to which he returns next year, Ball’s star has never dimmed.

As Marius, Ball captured all the complexities of the lonely student dazzled by the revolutionary passion of his friends but distracted by love. Schönberg and Boublil may have compressed hundreds of pages of character development into a few group numbers, duets and one major solo, but Michael Ball’s rendition of the desolating ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ at the 10th Anniversary Concert in particular is a sublime moment in musical theatre history, his voice breaking with emotional despair in the song’s rolling crescendo. That ability to pinpoint and powerfully convey the core of his characters, to unfold the breadth of their interior life makes his casting as Javert such an intriguing prospect, enough to draw audiences who may not have seen the show for years.

The relationship between Jean Valjean and Javert underpins the action, driving the narrative as they collide at different points. The casting of collaborators and friends Alfie Boe and Ball uses their playful yet competitive chemistry to great effect, yielding plenty of rewards for the audience. As Javert, Ball has the most difficult role to pitch, cast as a villain of sorts, operating with an inflexible moral code but through two solos must extract the pathos that Hugo also built into all of the character.

Schönberg and Boublil use Javert as chief antagonist, a harsh and unyielding figure in most of Act One, Javert’s main failing is not his hatred for Valjean but a refusal to accept that people can change, and it is this sudden realisation that determines his path through Act Two. Javert’s first solo ‘Stars’ is an important insight into this belief system, an idea of constancy and stability in which he maintains his faith. Ball sings this with great power, prompting a spontaneous standing ovation from a few audience members. The same occurs with ‘Soliloquy’ his final number as Ball’s Javert unpacks the unravelling of his mind with great meaning, leading movingly to his final turbulent release. It is a big coup for Les Misérables to have tempted him back and it proves a memorable performance – perhaps in the years ahead we may see his Valjean too.

Alfie Boe reprises a role he played next door and in the 25th Anniversary Concert. His operatic voice responds with ease to the changing registers of Valjean’s music but they allow Boe to vary the force of his delivery as his character’s circumstances and mental state fluctuate throughout the show. There is a predominant softness in his tone that reflects Valjean’s gentle nature and the essential goodness of heart that Hugo so carefully charts across the novels 1200 pages. Yet Boe uses the full power of his tenor range in Valjean’s moments of deep crisis, grappling with his own conscience in the Prologue numbers as the Bishop grants him a second chance, and later when the arrest of his lookalike forces him into a confession in the seismic ‘Who Am I?’

In some ways this is a very generous performance by Boe, allowing other cast members to shine, especially in the second half when political and romantic events among the younger generation dominate the story. But this is where Boe also delivers his best work; any Valjean will rise or fall on his ‘Bring Him Home’ and here it is all it should be, a huge transition for man about to lose everything he’s been living for, delivered with emotional might and rewarded with an extended audience ovation.

Les Misérables: The Staged Concert has a few other star names including Matt Lucas’s return as Thénardier in a great partnership with Katy Secombe. ‘Master of the House’ never fails to please the crowd, but Lucas and Secombe add some extra comedy asides and ad libs which the audience adore, although arguably the more serious ‘Dog Eats Dog’ is Lucas’s finest moment with Thénardier ruling the sewers and descrying the loss of God. Carrie Hope Fletcher is a sweet and tragic Fantine, a small role but she makes the first major solo of the show (‘I Dreamed a Dream’) a moving experience.

Any project like this celebrates the show’s past but also has an eye to its future and the younger cast members more than hold their own. The fervent rebel leader Enjolras is one of Les Misérables most exciting characters and Schönberg and Boublil have given him some rousing music which Bradley Jaden delivers exceptionally. Shan Ako is wonderful in Éponine’s ‘On My Own’ but Rob Houchen has the hardest role of all, standing next to the greatest ever Marius and trying to deliver his take on the character. Houchen may be a dreamier, more romantic version of Marius than Ball’s but his ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is a strong moment for him.

If you go to the theatre often, the focus is so often on the new, the next production, a new play or rising star that we dismiss the long-running musicals as tourist fodder. But revisiting Les Misérables for this staged concert is a reminder why this show has lasted so long as well seeing a new chapter in its performance history. Schönberg and Boublil have captured the breadth and richness of Victor Hugo’s incredible novel without losing any of the psychological complexity of its multi-lead format. And it is Hugo’s call for compassion that you will take away – something we all need a little bit more of these days. “Do You Hear the People Sing?” the rebels ask, well they’ve been singing for 34-years and it’s time we listened.

Les Misérables: The Staged Concert is at the Gielgud Theatre until 30th November with tickets from £32.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

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