[AD – Press]. Thank you for having me, Leeds Grand Theatre – it was so good to be back. Keep scrolling for my chronic illness-friendly review!
It’s always seemed like something of a crime that I call myself a theatre person and yet before last night, I’d never seen Les Miserables. It’s always been on the agenda – I own the book and the movie, but I knew I wanted to see the production first, with no preconceptions. It was tough to stick to that at times, but having now experienced the show for myself, I’m so glad I did.
Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Les Misérables is written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on the renowned novel by Victor Hugo. Set in the early 19th century on the cusp of the French Revolution, the story spotlights various characters as they struggle with redemption and standing up for what they believe in… and for many of them, doing that alongside being stuck in a cycle of poverty and abuse and simply trying to make it through the day.
Going into the performance, I knew the staging of Les Mis would be spectacular. Matt Kinley’s set and image design were inspired by the original paintings of Victor Hugo, and paired with Paule Constable’s lighting design and costuming by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland, it’s easy for the audience to immerse themselves in the setting of the story and feel at one with the characters.
As somebody who wasn’t overly familiar with the plot, Javert’s suicide scene was the standout moment of the production. Nic Greenshields’ devasting portrayal of a man failing to come to terms with his demons, combined with the dynamic use of lights and perception-shifting backdrop created such a realistic depiction of falling from a great height that I pretty much had to pick my jaw up off the floor.
As for the cast, there was so much talent on that one stage I’m surprised the building didn’t implode. I absolutely love a performance where there are understudies in leading roles, and it was such a treat to see Rebecca Ferrin as Cosette and Jenna Innes as Éponine, as well as Harry Chandler as Enjolras. To hear such iconic and timeless songs performed by such talented cast members was really something, and there were many times when I looked around at the audience and could almost see each note hitting each soul.
I knew that Les Mis was a story of struggle and hardship, and I went in prepared to be moved. What I was less prepared for were the moments of humour, scattered carefully in and among the more impactful scenes. It takes a talented actor to run with the more lighthearted moments and make them their own, and the performance of Madame Thénardier by Helen Walsh was a real highlight for me. It takes an incredible cast and production team to mode-switch between comedy and tragedy so effectively, and at times I was quite surprised at the pace at which this happened, but in my opinion the dry humour and wit added just as much to the production as the core storylines of heartbreak and rejection.
Something I’ve found throughout my whole time as a theatregoer is that the more other people hype up a musical to you, the higher your expectations are raised. This is something I’ve come to resent – after all, the higher the bar is set, the more likely you are to feel as though it doesn’t quite meet that expectation. As much as I hate to admit it for such a beloved musical, because I know this will be an unpopular opinion, the same happened here. I love nothing more than a show that wallops me right in the heart and leaves me lost for words, and for some reason Les Mis just didn’t quite do that for me in the way I know it does for hundreds of thousands of others.
Don’t get me wrong, the performance spoke to my soul and I did shed a tear (or twenty) during the final scenes, but I didn’t feel quite as connected to the individual characters as I expected to. With the exception of Jean Valjean, I just didn’t feel like I knew enough about them and their origin stories to invest in them as much as I would have liked to… but the fact that I felt there was this missing piece and yet still felt so immersed and invested in the story speaks volumes about the overall calibre of the production.
On reflection, I think I’d like to read the novel before I see the show again. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this show to others – if like me you’re a theatre fan who hasn’t experienced it yet, consider this your sign. I’d love to hear your own thoughts!
Chronic Illness-Friendly Review
This was my first time back in a full-capacity theatre since pre-pandemic, and to say I was apprehensive is an understatement. As I’ve spoken about online, it’s a tricky balance to get right – I’m still vulnerable and making decisions about what I do on a case-by-case basis, but I want to be empathetic to those who are still shielding completely. Theatre was and is such a big part of my life, and attending this performance was a test run to see if I could find ways to make it safer and more comfortable for me.
Naturally, I wore a mask in crowded areas. I also tried to avoid crowds altogether, and find quieter areas to wait before we took our seats. Of course, I had my stash of hand sanitizer on stand-by and tried to limit how much I touched in the environment around me.
However, the real gamechanging adjustment that made all the difference was sitting in a dress circle box, rather than in a row in the main seating area. There are steps down into the box so it won’t be accessible for every disabled person, but as I wasn’t using mobility aids on this day, it was an ideal solution for me. Although you’re of course still in a shared indoor space and this comes with risks, being in an individual box facing towards the stage put a greater distance between myself and others and gave what felt like much more personal space. This, combined with the great view of the stage, made me feel much more at ease to enjoy and get lost in the performance. I want to say a special thank you to Kelly and the Leeds Grand team for helping to make this happen – it made all the difference, and I’m incredibly grateful.
As for the production itself? By the end of Act One, I was in complete disbelief at how comfortable I’d found it to watch the show. As somebody with noise and light sensitivity, I was fully prepared for an onslaught that never arrived… until near the beginning of Act Two, that is. Harsh flashing lights and gunfire feature heavily in this act, and if you have a startle reflex, I urge you to be prepared for an unexpected gunshot at a pivotal moment so you don’t end up jumping about a mile out of your seat as I did. If you’re worried about special effects, I’d strongly recommend looking out for a Relaxed Performance for this one, so you can appreciate the production in a way that’s more comfortable for you. I generally don’t need to opt for Relaxed Performances myself, but if I were to see Les Mis again, I think I would go for one of those next time.
All in all, I’m so glad I finally got to experience such an iconic musical for myself. The two words I’d use to sum up the production are awe-inspiring, and it’s clear to see why the story of Les Mis has stood the test of time and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come.
If you’d like to experience it for yourself, have a look at the Les Mis tour dates on their website, and keep up to date on their social media platforms. It meant so much to simply be in a theatre again and soak up that magical stagey atmosphere, and I cannot wait to hopefully return again soon!