Les Misérables review: Power to the people

Spectacular set-pieces and showstopping tunes will take your breath away

Les Misérables
★★★★

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin

Set against the backdrop of the French revolution, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables epitomised the author’s political worldview. The sprawling work with its multitude of characters allowed him to expose the human tragedy at the heart of an inhumane social structure, where poverty was regarded as a moral failing that needed to be punished.

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical adaptation from 1980 offers both an individual and collective perspective on Hugo’s story. The hero Jean Valjean (Dean Chisnall) and villain Javert (Nic Greenshields) are merely examples against which the composer and lyricist hang a deeper representation of poverty and injustice. The musical does give us solo showstoppers – the hymnal Who Am I?, Bring Him Home, and I Dreamed a Dream – but it is in the choral ensemble numbers – Do You Hear the People Sing?, One Day More – that Les Misérables achieves its power.

In this new touring production, Matt Kinley’s masterful set slides and shifts against a projected background based on Hugo’s own artwork. (Hugo was a prolific painter as well as a writer; a virtuous virtuoso.) The projections create an immersive, cinematic environment against which directors Laurence Connor and James Powell (building on Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original English-language production) craft a series of stunning spectacular set pieces: the barricade scenes are especially impressive, but Javert’s suicide scene, enabled by Paule Constable’s cosmic lighting design, will take your breath away. As will the performances, which require an enormous amount of stamina from individual singers and the company as a whole. Chisnell and Greenshields rise above the occasion in the demanding lead roles. Chisnell’s range is matched by Greenshield’s power, with both bringing emotional fluency to their characters’ journeys. Katie Hall as Fantine and Nathania Ong as Eponine make memorable contributions too, and their vocal performances in the death scenes stand out. A diverse cast provides solid power, but there is some inconsistency to the casting of the show, which pulls the audience out of the action at a key moment in the story, where the action shifts forward nine years.

The Christian rhetoric of redemption that drives Hugo’s story comes to its inevitable conclusion after two and half hours of struggle and resistance. The reach towards heaven is, critically, staged without pomp, allowing the voices of the cast to soar. Even if you don’t believe in God, you will be convinced in these final moments of the transcendent, transformative power of art.

Until February 26th

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