What’s the sign that you’ve seen a great musical? You wake up the next morning with the score racing through your head? Check. You consider jacking it all in to pursue a career in musical theatre? Check. You immediately plan a return trip? Double check. The West End’s longest-running musical, Les Misérables, has reopened at the refurbished and renamed Sondheim theatre (formerly the Queen’s), and what a thrill – no, a privilege – it is to “hear the people sing” once more.
There’s a stellar new cast in place, although this is effectively the same touring show that directors Laurence Connor and James Powell created in 2009 to mark the musical’s 25th anniversary. This new version is less showy than the original; no longer a spectacle to lean back and admire but, instead, something more truthful and, ultimately, more moving. The battles, the poverty, the degradation and the danger: all feel more relevant and real.
Matt Kinley’s nimble set transforms from bustling life to aching loneliness in an instant and features looming projections, based on paintings by Victor Hugo (whose epic novel inspired the show). They’re beautiful and haunting vistas, which offer the impression of 19th-century Paris but also might be anytime, anywhere. Paule Constable’s lighting dances elegantly about the set, creating a series of prison walls that entrap the characters and, just occasionally, offer up a fleeting glimpse of warmth and hope.
For all the poetic power of the staging, it’s the singing we’ve come for – and there’s not a missed note all night. Schönberg’s soaring score sweeps the audience away. Jon Robyns mesmerises as Valjean, the ex-prisoner who cannot outrun his fate. His voice has great depth, strength and tenderness. When Valjean sits among the barricades and sings that most delicate of songs, Bring Him Home, the theatre holds its breath.
Carrie Hope Fletcher is a memorable Fantine; pure and vulnerable but strong and defiant too. Bradley Jaden is a suitably slippery Javert and Shan Ako, as Éponine, absolutely owns On My Own. Alongside these stunning solo performances are the surging ensemble numbers, which get the whole body tingling. They’re inspiring, too, at a time when all of us – in our own way – are hoping for a brighter tomorrow.