“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”
Rose D. Kaye
For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.
‘Les Misérables Curtain Up’
The flickering neon of adverts bouncing off the damp pavement illuminated the eager faces surging through Piccadilly Circus. In pairs and in groups large and small, the crowds were sucked through the beckoning doors of each successive theatre. Our destination on this wet but mild evening was the Queen’s Theatre and her marquee drew us ever closer, reeling in her patrons with the promise of a good time. Opened October 8th, 1907, she looked great for her age.
Row H in the Stalls, seats seventeen to nineteen were ours to claim. Excellent seats in plush red velvet close to the intimate stage, but far enough back to comfortably see all the action without straining your neck. My initial reaction was surprise at the small size of the stage. It seemed that the space would inhibit the production, but none of the audience seemed to be concerned. Ann did mention that before April 3rd, 2004 Les Mis had been showing at a much larger theatre, but she was willing to give this smaller venue the benefit of the doubt.
A fashionable throng dressed up for an event, unlike the half-naked young things shivering outside in the damp. For our hostess, these schoolgirls were nostalgic; the showing of vast areas of skin in all weathers a rite of passage for teens having a holiday night out on the town. It was ironic as well considering that yesterday we were in Paris and here we were back in London for a play about the French poor and the selling of one’s body and soul in order to survive. For most of the audience, and indeed for the fashionable girls outside, that desperate fight for survival was merely a play, a musical, and had no bearing on the comfortable life they lead.
We were virgins when it came to Les Misérables, unlike the majority of this evening’s clientele. Although we’d heard the music and had a basic idea of the story the emotions and expectations from the audience were palpable. Not excitement exactly, but more like the anticipation of meeting an old friend after an absence of years. When the lights went down and the pit orchestra began the prologue, all was hushed.
‘At The End Of The Day’ begins Act I and writing this reflection a day later in the comfort of Ann’s living room has given me a clearer perspective on what we saw. The play itself was good. The stage direction was excellent, making full use of the limited space available resulting in the production appearing larger than the area actually was. The set props were brilliant in the way they complemented and framed the ensemble allowing the characters space to breathe. The lighting was judicious and most effective in the pure white light utilized when death had claimed another victim. I did have a quibble with the musical score, which at various times overpowered the dialogue.
What of the cast then? I had no basis of comparison at that time, but overall the performers seemed flat and lifeless. Individually there were several outstanding performances. Drew Sarich, who played Jean Valjean, emoted well and gave me insight into the character’s growth as a representative of man’s ability to do good in the face of suffering. His voice was brilliant when he sang and it touched the audience deeply. Inspector Javert, portrayed capably by Hans Peter Janssens, was also well done and created a sense of sympathy for a man trapped by his perceived duty to the law. A harsh mistress is Justice and his suicide scene was cleverly staged and a highlight of the evening.
The rest of the players showed flashes of promise, but struggled at times with projection and passion. Eponine, played by the understudy Rachael Louise Miller, sang her solo ‘On My Own’ beautifully and with tender nuance befitting the moment. Of all the characters, she alone died with the sense of bewilderment and pathos that came the closest to Victor Hugo’s vision. The biggest disappointment for me was the performances of M. and Mme. Thénardier. Their introduction in the play as the guardians and abusers of Little Cosette was not at all brutal and chilling, but rather comic. The ensemble song ‘Master of the House’ lacked the depth of cynicism and greed that would have stood in stark contrast with the exploited and foolish tavern customers. Although the characters of the manipulative innkeeper and his suffering wife are supposed to be funny, it is not the fun of farce but rather the grim humor of the gallows that motivates their every dark action.
The majority of the thrilled audience clearly considered this number the highlight of the musical and reacted with enthusiastic delight. It seemed to detract from the overall play and none of the other players got through to me. The scene of the mass deaths of the students upon the barricades was anti-climatic and felt rushed and glossed-over. I am not sure if the audience empathized with Javert when he sat on the broken barricade amongst the dead, holding his anguished face in his hands. This scene and the next were the most moving and well done of the entire production.
For Javert to kill himself because he was unable to reconcile his perceived duty to the law instead of taking the path that Jean Valjean took; for me this is the choice we all face. To care about others and what is right and just or to blindly accept what is done to us in the name of corrupt laws and government lackeys. Javert is the moral compass of Les Misérables and he fails at the end of the day to do what is right.
“Wow Rose, this is a pretty harsh review. Did you not enjoy the play at all?”
“Honestly Dewy, I did enjoy the play. My thoughts are more in the vein that the sense of anticipation did not match the actual production. The audience seemed to have a set vision of Les Misérables before it started and were willing to overlook any flat spots in favor of the shared collective experience.”
“What about you Brian, did this evening meet with your expectations?”
“I have to disagree somewhat with my friend Rose here. I had a marvelous time and thoroughly enjoyed the actors and actresses. I thought the singing was very good and the chemistry between the leads was very evident. It had been a long time since I’d seen a live production and it was worth going.”
“Ann I’ll ask you to weigh in with your opinion here as you have seen Les Mis three times now?”
“Actually, Dewy this was my fourth time. How could Brian, Diane and Rose come to London and not see a West End production? I would be failing in my duty as a hostess. Anyway, apart from one or two other possibilities, I realized it simply had to be Les Mis, no real competition. It’s such a wonderful show. I just hoped they would enjoy it as much as I do.”
“In that case Ann, do you share Rose’s opinions as to the merits of the overall production?”
“Gosh Dewy, considering Rose had never seen the show before, her analysis is pretty accurate. I was a tad disappointed with certain aspects of the show too, but it’s the music I love and that was marvelous and the lead actors were excellent. I think it’s a shame the show had to move because no matter what anyone else thinks, I don’t believe a smaller stage did it any favors.”
“Diane what was your take on this subject? Did the experience of the play meet or exceed your expectations?”
“Oh I was very excited about the Les Mis outing Dewy. It exceeded my expectations in many ways, however the innkeeper’s scenes disappointed me. Overall though the lead characters impressed me very much and their performance was very impressive!”
“Did you have a favorite song or character after seeing them live?”
“I think my favorite character was Jean Valjean because he was so strong and portrayed the story so well. I understood everything that was going on and the emotional struggle he faced. The song I loved the most was ‘On My Own’.”
“Dewy I’d like to add that my main goal of the evening was to ensure my guests enjoyed the play, coming away with an appreciation of live theater and having a great night out. I hope I succeeded in that goal Rose.”
“Oh you did Ann. Despite my review, I would like to see Les Mis again some day with you. Maybe in New York or even someplace more exotic.”