Arts, Venue

Les Mis is everything you hope it would be, Norwich Theatre Royal

Over 42,000 people will pass through the doors of Norwich Theatre Royal in the next five weeks to see the touring production of Les Miserables. Some of these visitors will travel from over an hour and a half away, and a huge 25% of ticket buyers haven’t visited this Norwich venue before. This information was all shared by Stephen Crocker, Chief Executive of Norwich Theatre Royal, at the Les Mis press night on Friday 6th March, which I was lucky enough to attend.

Les Miserables, a musical based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, is a story about many things all at once. It focuses on politics and people, and the stage production does a beautiful job of portraying the narrative so that every character gets their fair time on stage, and ensures that their minutes in the spotlight feel all-encompassing, as though they are the only character that matters at that moment. You could say that Les Mis is a story about the life of ex-convict Jean Valjean, the mental struggle that Javert undergoes as he tries to balance his job as a man of the law and his own humanity, or the young love between Marius and Cosette.

Norwich Theatre has a smaller stage than the production may be used to, particularly in comparison to its long-established home in the West End, and this did feel noticeable at the start of the show. However, what felt like a cramped space soon opened up as the height and depth of the stage was made use of. This was aided by a screen at the back of the stage which was used to project architecture, expanding the limits of the stage and making for an almost cinematic experience.

I was slightly nervous after the opening sequence of the show. It was well done, but I, as many theatre fans do, have perhaps unattainably high expectations and standards for Les Mis. My first ‘wow’ moment came from the performance of the Bishop who offers help to Jean Valjean – his vocals were incredible, and I wasn’t surprised to find that he is one of the understudies for Javert. As the show continued, my nerves disappeared, and I fell in love with Les Mis once again. I adored Eponine’s Scottish twang, and of course, the Thenardiers stole every scene that they were in.

The second half of the evening made the show. Every character who I was concerned may deliver an underwhelming performance based on the first act really proved themselves – Marius, Fantine, and Cosette all grew on me, and I appreciate that they have the softer personalities from this cast of characters. I have always found Cosette and Marius’ relationship somewhat too soppy, but this adaptation made me really buy into their relationship and root for them.

I held my breath for most of the second half. Javert was a vocal powerhouse. I adored every single second that he was on the stage, and his suicide is a moment that gets me every time, in every adaptation that I’ve seen, and the staging of it in this production was fantastic. Jean Valjean’s ‘Bring Him Home’ also cemented his authority in his role – I could hear many sniffles throughout the auditorium. My only criticism is what felt like inconsistencies in the pacing of the plot. At times I felt that things were rushed. For example, Eponine’s death was given a lengthy time to sit with the characters and audience, and was the only time during the evening that I shed tears. In comparison, Gavroche’s death felt rushed, and I consider this to be the harder-hitting of the two as it involves such a young child.

On a wider scale, the overall feeling that Les Mis invoked in me was inspiring. I could draw many parallels with the current turmoil in the UK’s political climate and felt that the show conjured up a real urgency about the difference between right and wrong, and what is important in situations of conflict. This is the first time that I have seen Les Mis live since starting my undergraduate degree, and the desire of the students to enact social change was so palpable I could feel it.

Les Mis provided a spectacular evening of entertainment. If there are any tickets left I would grab them – it’s certainly worth the hefty price tag.

09/03/2020

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Ellie Robson