~ Daily Telegraph -
10th October 1985 by
John Barber ~
Sprawling for more than three hours over the vast Barbican stage, the pop musical version of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel "Les Miserables" makes an enthralling spectacle and is full of good tunes. It tells a rambling yarn as sanctimonious as it is melodramatic, though this bogs down in a static student-led riot against ill-treatment of the poor.
"In our penal cells, and in the shame of our streets." pontificated Hugo, "is to be found the stuff of which angls are made." Out of this stuff he shaped his hero, Jean Valjean, ex-convict on the run reclaimed for God by a saintly bishop and pursued for years by the rigidpoliceman Javert. His conversion is psychologically interesting but the book declines into a crude cops-and-robbers epic, and drips with sentimentality when Valjean saves and sustains a child waif, daughter of a virtuous but wronged prostitute who dies pathetically on a paupers bed.
Out of this turgid panorama, two Frenchmen (Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the composer) devised a popular Paris show with lush singable music. Surprisingly for men so creative, directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird have combined forces with John Napier (designer) and David Hersey (lighting) - the "Nicholas Nickelby" team - to adapt the show for London. One might have expected them to be doing something new.
With jolly lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer (rhyming happy days gone by with the wine of friendship not running dry) the music is continuous. There is no spoken dialogue. The action takes place on a perpetually revolving stage, Napiers designs, brilliantly sketching penal colony, boisterous inn or student cafe and culminating in another of his super rubbish dumps to suggest the Paris barricades of 1830.
Colm Wilkinson sings well for the long-suffering Valjean, as does Roger Allam for his policeman enemy, who in the end is so confused by the ex-criminal's obvious goodness he drowns himself. Patty LuPone's holy prostitute has a lovely voice.
But the monster show drags towards the end, with Valjean's death after his ward's wedding to her wounded student lover. It left me doubtful about the whole ponderous exercise. But the masterly direction of Messrs. Nunn and Caird often contrive to say things cleverly enough to hide the banality of what is being said.
17th October 1985
You are not asked to like Les Miserables. You are asked to admire it. And our admiration is solicited not on the grounds of something truthful and profound, not on the grounds of soemthing intelligent and stimulating but on the grounds of melodrama, contrivance and artifice. Messrs Nunn and Hugo are entirely suitable bedfellows - their world is that of the showman - they are concerned to shock, rarely to provoke. Witness John Napier's magnificent evocation of the rotting, maggot-like existance of the Fench working class. We are arrested by the spectacle of what we see, not moved by the pain of human suffering. Witness Schonberg's music, powerful rock opera powerfully delivered, but which makes of Kretzmer's lyrics something intrinsically theatrical, lacking the power to move. The story itself is a piece of romantic contrivance and you can never engage with ex-convict Jean Valjean on his path to redemption - the idea of evil as redemptive is, in itself, pure Romantic optimisim. The overall effect is of character, passion, incident existing in a void. But if the major failure of the piece is to engage our emotion, this is also its strength. What we have here is splendid theatrical effect. The shell of theatre if you like. Not the bones of drama.
19th October 1985
Two things at least are certain about Les Miserables. The first is that the critics have expressed alarm, disgust and displeasure that the RSC should lend itself (cynically, they would say) to a trite money making venture. The second is that the prodution is sold out, and the auspices for a commercial transfer to all parts of the globe are correspondingly excellent. In these circumstances low expectations are the best ones to hold. When it comes to modern musicals my expectations are of the very lowest. The spectacle tells us nothing much about Victor Hugo's novel. The songs are unmemorable save for one, quite rousing, beer-hall number which buzzed about in my head for a couple of hours after the performance. The story is sentimental and melodramatic, delivered by the cast with enormous gusto and told by the writers with great sententiousness. The plot is perfectly easy to follow with or without the detailed programme note explaining where the action shifts from Digne in 1815 to the Paris barricades in 1832 and who is consumed by thoughts of whom and why. And some of the sets by John Napier are stunning, notably the Paris slum which pivots spectacularly to become a barricade. If musicals are to your taste then this one is slicker than many and no more empty than most.