Les Misérables – The Lowry

Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, the stage musical adaptation of Les Misérables has undoubtedly become a cultural phenomenon. Now entering its 37th consecutive year on the West End, it has been seen by over 120 million people across the world. It even got a major Hollywood adaptation, but the less said about that, the better…

So how on earth did I manage to live 35 years without having seen Les Misérables? I must be the only theatre blogger out there that hasn’t seen it before. Therefore, what follows is my reaction as a first-time viewer, answering the crucial question; “Does Les Mis live up to the hype?”.

Les Miserables The Lowry Theatre Salford Manchester Theatre Review
Picture Credit – Danny Kaan.

From the start, the musical succeeds in wowing audiences by having a lot of songs that involve many people on stage, and oftentimes, they include the full ensemble cast. From prison ships to factories, from brothels to the barricades, this is a show that instantly impresses with its grand scale.

Because of its epic nature, Les Misérables is clearly a monumental team effort. Not only from those on stage, but also the backstage technical team who create vast, immense sets and deal with huge scenic changes and a multitude of costume changes. The show runs like a well-oiled machine, making it difficult to believe that this leviathan of a show is actually a touring production.

Every single person involved deserves huge credit for making a touring performance every bit as spectacular and special as it would be on the West End. Generally, watching a show on tour doesn’t hold the same quality as a permanent production. But here, Les Misérables bucks that trend by being as equally extraordinary as its London counterpart.

Regional audiences can watch it with the full confidence that they’ve not missed out by watching it on tour, rather than at the Sondheim Theatre.

Les Miserables The Lowry Theatre Salford Manchester Theatre Review
Picture Credit – Danny Kaan.

Just as epic as the production itself, the play’s narrative tells a breathtaking story of redemption that spans several decades. Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, has served 19 years on the chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread. Breaking his parole, Valjean uses stolen silver from a church to forge a new life and become a better man. In doing so, he must constantly avoid the law, namely the police inspector, Javert.

Eight years later, Jean Valjean has changed his name to Monsieur Madeleine and is now a factory owner and a mayor. When one of his factory workers, Fantine, is outcast for having a secret illegitimate child, she turns to desperate means to provide for her daughter, selling her hair, a locket, and even her own body. She is taken to hospital by Jean Valjean, who treats her with kindness and promises Fantine that he will look after her daughter and raise Cosette as his own.

Across the years, Jean Valjean has run-ins with Javert, and their rivalry really elevates the musical. It provides a tense, personal drama which is offset against the play’s candid portrayal of the crippling poverty and social injustices of nineteenth century France, which all takes place amid the violent backdrop of the people’s uprising during the French Revolution.

Dean Chisnall delivers an astounding performance as Jean Valjean. Arguably one of the greatest characters to play in musical theatre, Chisnall exquisitely renders Valjean’s heroic nature, whilst also portraying his humanity and humility. With an impressive vocal range, Chisnall is a powerhouse in the emphatic ‘Who Am I?’, yet also captures a moment of breathtaking beauty in his deeply moving solo, ‘Bring Him Home’. The gentle tenderness in his voice completely contrasts with Jean Valjean’s other songs, as his character’s resolute strength turns to compassion and sorrow, aching for absolution.

Les Miserables The Lowry Theatre Salford Manchester Theatre Review
Dean Chibnall is Jean Valjean. Picture Credit – Danny Kaan.

Nic Greenshields also delivers a phenomenal performance as Javert. His baritone voice is gorgeous, with deep, bass tones that provide the perfect accompaniment to his ‘evil’ nature. Far from playing the pantomime villain, the true masterstroke of Greenshields’ characterisation of Javert is that his nature is torn.

It’s a magnificent, nuanced performance that shows Javert isn’t fully evil, he does show some compassion at times. He deliberately lets Jean Valjean escape justice, if it means saving someone’s life. This is all brought to the fore by Greenshields in the stunning, heart-wrenching ‘Soliloquy‘, which shows his inner turmoil as he contemplates suicide.

The best parts of Les Misérables are whenever these two colossal characters cross paths. These scenes emit unfathomable tension, and the dynamic between Javert and Jean Valjean is gripping to watch, as their relationship evolves over their lifetimes. It is one of the best developed rivalries I have ever seen on stage, performed impeccably by Chibnall and Greenshields.

Les Miserables The Lowry Theatre Salford Manchester Theatre Review
Nic Greenshields is Javert. Picture Credit – Danny Khan.

Written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, the music of Les Misérables is exquisite. Sung beautifully by Will Callan, heart-breaking ballads like ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables‘ fit naturally alongside rousing, spectacular set-pieces such as ‘Do You Hear The People Sing?‘ and the comedic ‘Master of the House‘. I also love the way that the melody of ‘I Dreamed a Dream‘ becomes a poignant motif throughout the musical.

The word ‘masterpiece’ is often overused in theatre criticism, but in the case of Les Misérables, it is entirely justified. This show is on a completely different level to anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s honestly a truly special, breathtaking piece of theatre. I can see why many people watch it time and time again. I will be doing the same!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Les Misérables is at The Lowry theatre in Salford until Saturday 23rd April. For further information, or to book tickets, please visit The Lowry’s website.

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