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Les Misérables review

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

Published on January 27th 2010.

Les Misérables review

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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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Simon11143January 28th 2010.

Looks like they did at least ditch that god awful American guy who was playing Valjean not so long ago.

Simon11143January 28th 2010.

Actually... Gareth Gates !? F*ck that.

Almera GortonJanuary 28th 2010.

Simon11143. Actually, Gareth Gates makes a fantastic Marius and you are just jealous because he is talented, tall dark and handsome! Get over it and grow up and do not use obscene language!

John SmeathersJanuary 28th 2010.

Allie is wearing rose-tinted glasses I think. Whilst Gates has a wonderful singing voice his acting is definitely on the lower slopes and I felt he cut a rather insipid Marius. He also needs to learn how to use a walking stick! All in all an enjoyable and interesting new production. Couldn't help but miss the revolve though, there was a static element that crept in without it and one of show's strong points has always been its near-constant motion.

PhantomJanuary 29th 2010.

Gates is a good singer but a wooden actor as stated above. But this is a great show still

Almera GortonJanuary 29th 2010.

For those who say Gareth Gates can't act. I say that Cameron Mackintosh knows more about acting than you! You can see Cameron Mackintosh on youtube - Cameron Mackintosh talking about Gareth Gates! He says that Gareth is FANTASTIC and he should know!

Simon11143February 2nd 2010.

I just hope we don't end up with endless reams of stage shows for the X-Factor generation, whose senses have become so dulled that the only way to lure them to the theatre is to lower the standard of the industry to pander to this ridiculous obsession with bland and unremarkable reality TV.

Put your toys back in the pram, Allie. Your arguments are as tired and boring as your false messiah.

AnonymousFebruary 2nd 2010.

Simon, just how arrogant and ill informed are you? Stage has altered throughout history to cater to the market at that time.
From your comments it's quite clear you haven't been to see this show and so are not qualified to comment on a performance you haven't seen. Yes Gareth Gates was on an irritating tv programme but times have changed and if that's his foot in the door then how can anyone deny him that? You seem incredibly small minded.

AnonymousFebruary 17th 2010.

This is a fantastic production and well deserves the standing ovation.

John Owen-Jones, who was the youngest ever person to perform the part of Jean Valjean does so spectacularly and convincingly.

I disagree about the lack of emotion, everyone around me, including myself were reaching for the tissues at the finale.

The tour is being extended and coming back to the Lowry in August - I for one will be there!

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