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Theatre review: Les Misérables in Manchester

Sarah Tierney watches Gareth Gates sing his way through a storm at the Palace Theatre

Published on January 27th 2010.

Theatre review: Les Misérables in Manchester

LES Misérables is one of those productions that people refer to as a phenomenon. It's got its own army of fans, its own nickname, and its own set of superlatives: longest-running, best-loved, most-performed and so on. It's celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year with an all-new production that has just landed at the Palace Theatre. On Thursday night, the audience gave the phenomenon a phenomenal reception: a standing ovation swept across the stalls. Everything about Les Mis, including the audience reaction, is done on an amplified scale. It's both the strength and the weakness of this production.

It's an epic story that packs in all the big emotions: anger, love, grief, guilt, hair-clutching despair.

The story is taken from Victor Hugo's novel about the lives of French down-and-outs during the turbulent times leading up to the Paris Uprising of 1832. It opens with convict Jean Valjean (John Owen-Jones) being freed on parole after 19 years of forced labour for stealing a loaf of bread. Beating his chest and clenching his fists, he sings of his woe: although he's free, the official papers he must show employers condemn him as a thief. It's only when a bishop gives him a second chance that he turns his life around.

Next time we see Jean Valjean, it's eight years later and he's transformed himself from sinner to saint – he's a mayor, a local hero, and a wealthy businessman. Extreme changes in fortune characterise Les Misérables: one of the girls in Jean Valjean's factory, Fantine (Madalena Alberto) goes from hard-working, virtuous mother to desperate, degraded whore. Her daughter, Cosette (Katie Hall) is transformed from an unloved orphan to a rich young lady. Her childhood companion, Éponine (Rosalind James), isn't so lucky: once an indulged child, she ends up as a street urchin, in love with the student Marius (Gareth Gates) who loves the once-maligned Cosette.

It's an epic story that packs in all the big emotions: anger, love, grief, guilt, hair-clutching despair. Every scene is a big scene. From the opening number, you're caught within a force-ten storm of sentiments, which is fantastic in one sense – nobody goes to a musical looking for subtlety.

But in another sense, it risks having the opposite effect to what it intends. All that anguish left me feeling largely unmoved, mainly because it is all turned up to the same level: eleven. There's no build-up in this production – we're in finale mode from the off. And there's no holding back: songs such as 'On My Own', which are stirring when performed simply and with restraint, are belted out diva-style as if designed to wow the judges of X Factor. It means that some of the power of Les Misérables is lost. The actors might be able to sustain that degree of emotion for two and a half hours, but the audience is in danger of becoming detached.

The standing ovation suggests that many people would not agree – and there are elements of this production that are certainly successful. The chorus numbers such as 'At the End of the Day' are great, and Gareth Gates shows off the expressive voice that pinned us to our sofas when he reached the finals of Pop Idol. Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot who play the nefarious innkeeper Thénardier and his bawdy wife are another highlight – their opening number 'Master of the House' is a rousing, comedy delight.

This production has a spectacular, larger-than-life feel, with sets and costumes as big as the performances. Madame Thénardier, for example, seems to have balloons for breasts and Little Cosette (Nikia Attard) wields a sweeping brush that must be twice her size. It all adds up to a vivid, dramatic musical that will impress you, even if it doesn't move you. Fans of Les Mis won't crown this version their favourite, but they certainly won't be disappointed.

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