From curtain up we are plunged into a gritty Hogarthian world of squalid filth. Ragged, grime-caked convicts heave at galley oars, moaning a wordless lament. You can smell the sweat. The only colours are black and red, but the red is faded and smoked with dirt. The action is walled in by a brooding darkness, out of which menace might suddenly loom. This gloomy opening sets the scene for a show which does not flinch from an exploration of a brutal, unsympathetic world. A tough world, yes, but a world where redemption is possible.
Then the action races away at an astonishing pace. Storytelling and music coalesce; each scene is a song, each song is a scene, so that every narrative node comes with its own searing musical commentary and the momentum of events is matched by an equal, unrelenting emotional momentum. It is remarkable just how much gets crammed in, and how the show sweeps so effortlessly through so vast a canvas; moving deftly from the deeply personal to the public and political. This is one of the strengths of the show and why, after around 40 years, it keeps going strong.
An epic story deserves an epic staging and, in this department, the production delivers most wonderfully. This is achieved through conventional stage craft; as when the towering and populous tenements of Paris invade the stage to overwhelming effect; through painterly, atmospheric projection and lighting effects, for example, when the action descends down into the sewers beneath the city. This is all brought together spectacularly to represent the awful slaughter on the barricades and the watery end of conflicted police chief, Javert.
Nic Greenshields excels in this role, physically and vocally commanding, and emotionally utterly committed. Dean Chisnall as Valjean matches him in every respect so that, as antagonists, they create a compelling axis of opposites at the heart of the show. The students, led by a charismatic Samuel Wyn-Morris, bring all of the swagger and bravado and idealism of youth to their big numbers, Red and Black and Do you hear the people sing. Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh are hilarious and repulsive in equal measure as the ghastly Thenardiers.
The music floats on a lush cushion of orchestral sound which belies the scant 14 players in the pit. This was outstanding playing, superbly conducted and shaped by Music Director Ben Ferguson.
Towards the end Rachelle Ann Go and Nathania Ong, both exceptional as, respectively, Fantine and Eponine, duet as ghosts. The effect is suitably angelic. They usher an exhausted Valjean into the afterlife, there to be greeted by all those who have gone before him. This could be mawkish, but such is the shows uncomplicated emotional honesty, even the most cynical heart cannot but be moved.
Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics: Herbert Kretzmer (Original French Text: Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel)
Directors: Laurence Connor and James Powell