Review - Les Miserables at the Sondheim Theatre
Another fantastic chapter in West End history has been gloriously (re)written, with not one but two spectacular reinventions - first of a theatre itself, in which the Queen's on Shaftesbury Avenue has been reincarnated as the Sondheim Theatre and completely refurbished by its owner Cameron Mackintosh to restore it from a threadbare functionality to which it had previously been brought back 61 years ago from wartime bomb damage to a glowing and welcoming new warmth.
Meanwhile, its current tenant - already the West End's longest-running musical - has itself been entirely overhauled, with Mackintosh taking the opportunity of its temporary 20-week closure for the theatre's refurbishment to replace the original landmark RSC production with a touring version that was first created for a UK tour as part of the show's 25th-anniversary celebrations in 2010.
It was briefly seen in London that year at the Barbican - the show's original London home - running contemporaneously with the West End edition, and is even now on a new European and UK tour, currently playing in Zurich before it returns to continue across the regions in March.
The first thing to say about it is that it still owes a lot to the original Trevor Nunn and John Caird production - the famous revolve of John Napier's original design may have gone, for instance, but now the actors merely mime the identical movement (originally the work of Kate Flatt, with musical staging now credited to Geoffrey Garratt, long an associate on the original production) as they advance across the stage in the ever-rousing Act One finale of "One Day More" as the iconic red flag is waved above them. Fans of the original will check off numerous such instances, including the indelible image of a dead Enjolras lying across the back of a cart. Crucially, too, the original costume designs of Andreane Neofitou are also retained, so visually there are plenty of references to the original production.
There are also several cast veterans of the previous incarnation, including principals Bradley Jaden who was Javert in the final cast of the original and reprises that role now; Jon Robyns, previously Marius and Enjolras, who now graduates to the role of Jean Valjean; and Carrie Hope Fletcher, previously Eponine and now playing Fantine (and all three in spectacular voice); amongst others in the ensemble who also include fellow West End returnees Ciaran Bowling, Sarah Lark and Luke McCall. The show remains an ensemble effort, as it was when it was first created by Nunn and Caird.
That establishes a welcome sense of continuity from past to present versions, but it is also given a fresh 21st-century inventiveness with Matt Kinley's sets being complemented by stunning painterly projections, inspired by Victor Hugo's own paintings, that have been niftily realised by Fifty-Nine Productions and Finn Ross, all of which are lavishly lit by Paule Constable.
Mick Potter's sound is also thrilling, wrapping the theatre is swathes of sumptuous melody, richly played by the pit orchestra under the direction of Steve Moss.
As both a producer and theatre owner, Cameron Mackintosh has always been about attention to detail; the reopening of this theatre and show gives him an opportunity to prove his meticulous care in both. But I also love fresh new details, whether it be the reintroduction of rear dress circle boxes that are newly named in honour of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, or new cast members like West End regular Josefina Gabrielle, who - cast entirely against her usual sophisticated type as Madame Thenardier - is virtually unrecognisable and truly hilarious.
The show remains a thrilling triumph. Here's to the next 35 years, as it looks set to become The Mousetrap of musical theatre; but unlike that murder mystery, there's hardly any mystery to why it's such an enduring success.
Les Miserables tickets are available now.
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