“HONEST work, just reward; that’s the way to please the Lord.” So runs a lyric from the Boubil and Schoenberg hit musical Les Miserables.
Not wanting to interrupt its London run for a theatre refurbishment, canny Cameron Mackintosh has shifted from the Queen’s to the Gielgud next door and given its adoring public a staged concert version instead. This is for a few months, and the full show will be back in business at the Queen’s by Christmas, similarly freshened up.
But what a concert; what majesty.
This is no filler, but a starry night imbued with the double celebrity powerhouse of Michael Ball and Alfie Boe (an established duo already) singing Javert and Valjean respectively, joined by the comic genius of Matt Lucas and Katie Secombe as the Thenardiers.
Then there are those who have come through the roles and made a name for themselves. So, Rob Houchen sings Marius, with Bradley Jaden as Enroljas; Carrie Hope Fletcher mines emotional depth as Fantine; and Shan Ako plays Éponine as if her life depended on the performance. Hamming it to the hilt, giving everyone what they came for, Ball and Boe chew through the melodrama and run dangerously close to pantomime. But that’s where Lucas and Secombe shine, almost stopping the show. Everyone gives 110 per cent.
It’s fully costumed and lit, all delivered with dramatic verve. The concert aspect is emphasised by a row of microphones on stands at the front, although somewhat redundant, as everyone wears a head-mic. Without the narrative of stage action, it forces focus on to the music and lyrics. The score may have been overtaken by something like Hamilton, but it’s still lush and operatic, with the orchestra here giving it full symphonic force. Some of the grit and romance of Victor Hugo’s story finds expression as horns rasp, a xylophone rattles, and the strings tug plangently at the audience’s heartstrings.
The book remains a deft triumph. As with other adaptations, the socio-economic excess in the novel regarding Parisian sewers or Napoleonic veterans is pared away to spotlight the humanity of rounded, believable characters. It also brings into sharp relief what a religious work this is, through countless references to God, the Lord, and salvation theology as a constant thread. How many coachloads of theatregoers have been to this show over the years and emerged in tears clutching a Kleenex (as my mother still does), knowing that what they have just seen is a sound work of theology?
The axle is the initial theft of bread by Jean Valjean to feed his sister’s starving child, a moral question dealt with in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (II.7-11), and portrayed with devastating pathos here.
Add in the bishop who gives shelter to the ex-convict, and explicitly allows him to keep the stolen candlesticks discovered on him the next day (but to “become a better man”); Inspector Javert, whose merciless idea of justice is all law and no gospel; the promise to a dying mother that her child will be cared for until they meet again in heaven; and the place of convents as a safe space with a direct line to the Almighty — it’s all stirring stuff and religiously literate. But neither does it opt for too many easy answers.
Javert, who ultimately cannot forgive himself, falls in suicide “as Lucifer fell” into the Seine. Corrupt chancers are exposed, and there is some sense of justice. But there is also heartache. The child Gavroche and the lovelorn Éponine both die senselessly in the uprising. Marius’s lament to his dead friends, “Empty chairs at empty tables”, is a timeless hymn to old comrades, whose spirits appear in the shadows behind as he sings.
And to conclude, there is the dying Valjean, among nuns, where those who have gone before return to lead him heavenwards — particularly Fantine, to whom he made that deathbed promise. “To love another person is to see the face of God,” he tells his adopted daughter. And then it is into the final number, a reprise of “Do you hear the people sing?”, which earlier was all passion and idealism for political change. Now it means something else.
”There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes,” they proclaim, and we know clearly it is the resurrection to eternal life. Here is a solid and unembarrassed statement on faith in all its promise put with clarity and force: a vivid example of Christian evangelism.
It is just reward for the honest work of Mackintosh, all right: top-price seats range from £125 to £250 for the VIP package. The whole run sold out within weeks.
At the Gieldgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, until 30 November. Box Office: phone 0844 482 5151. https://www.lesmis.com/london