Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theatre review ***

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Les Miserables

Queen’s Theatre, 16th September

I first saw Les Mis at the Barbican some three decades ago (gulp). I seem to remember me and TFF were perched up in the gallery and the view was obscured a bit by lighting rigs. To use the vernacular it blew me away. Between now and then, as my cultural elitism ballooned along with my waist, I have become rather sniffy about it, as I am generally with West End musicals. However underneath my snobbish carapace I have always yearned to re-visit just to see what the older me would think. The SO, the D’s and MS had no interest so it was up to LS, with LGN in tow, to provide the excuse.

LS loves this sort of stuff. She dips in to the film at regular intervals and has the soundtrack constantly shuffling on her phone. So, happy faces on, we set off for LS’s belated birthday treat. Now before we get to the show a word about the Queen’s. I have yet to find a West End theatre I like. There are a few I can tolerate. The Queen’s is not one of them. Public spaces are tired, seats are uncomfortable, though legroom was just about OK, and the queue for the ladies was a joke. Indeed the ushers were basically issuing ultimatums to those poor women who didn’t cross the lavatorial threshold before the firm 20 interval, as it were. That’s just b*llocks. You can wait a few minutes and extend the interval. Tut, tut Mr Mackintosh.

Having said that we managed to secure some pretty decent seats near the front of the stalls with my aisle seat, (always an aisle – don’t ask, it’s a long story), losing only a fraction of the action. Prices here are just shy of gouging but I guess this part of the London market can bear it. This though is a show where paying up is worth it, given the set, and a little bit of research pays dividends.

Now the sound (Mick Potter) is very good. Obviously the cast are all miked up to the eyeballs. I see some sweet reviewers complaining about the miking. Trust me if the production team reigned this in, or even, as some suggest, dispensed with it, the poor punters in the gods would be watching a mime show. The lighting (David Hersey) is also dramatic, although all the action does emerge from some dark Stygian gloom, and they are very heavy on the dry ice. I guess we have to assume that France in the first few decades of the C19 had a very long run of bad weather.

I won’t bother with the story. You will know even if you don’t, by which I mean it shamelessly trots out some hoary dramatic staples, (unrequited love, mistaken identities, letting the baddie off the hook, belated realisation by baddie that he is a sh*t). But it does really work. Even if you try your level best to remain unmoved by the tale of Valjean’s redemption, (unless you are one of those blokes who is hard as nails and thinks theatre generally is suspect), you will get sucked in.

I had also forgotten just how simple the score is. That is not a criticism. When you break down Mozart’s operas, (or, if you can stomach them, Wagner’s), you see how the material is pushed and pulled into different shapes throughout. (OK maybe there is a bit more going on in The Marriage of Figaro than Les Mis, but the point still holds up). Ask a musicologist. I counted six or seven repeated melodies that crop up, with little variation, in two or three songs. That though is why the music is so powerfully direct. I had the privilege of LS bobbing about next to me and, just about still inaudibly, singing along in the second act, and she was not the only one. And there were tears aplenty as Eponine, the little cherub, the students and finally big JV himself, popped their clogs. It is nice to see an audience enjoying their theatre though my eyes stayed dry (and I am a perennial blubber).

So what holds the Tourist back. Not the singing. That all appeared up to snuff and what would I know anyway. If I had to highlight a couple of voices it would be Hayden Tee’s Javert and Charlotte Kennedy’s Cosette. No the problem lies in the acting. There are no inadvertent jazz hands but hands definitely get wrung, there are deaths from gunfire worthy of a 1950s cowboy movie, “woe is me” faces abound, legs are manfully thrust and skirts are assertively swished. The choreography and movement are impressive but all is still in service of the big numbers. To be fair this is why I dislike most opera that isn’t from the C20 or contemporary, and avoid most musical theatre. Here though none of the cast really connect with the characters IMHO, with the notable exception of Steven Meo’s Thenardier. Unlike the rest of the cast he seems up to now to have been working in “straight” theatre. It shows. Obviously the character is a preposterous villain straight our of Victorian melodrama, but at least I got a sense of a personality beyond the belters and balladers.

So there you have it. It’s pretty good. I drifted a bit but no more than many operas I have put my self through (for when opera works, as many observe, it is a sublime art form; it is just a shame it is so dull a lot of the time). If you like it you will really like it, but if you are wary of such entertainments, save your money. Hardly helpful advice but that’s the facts, folks.

You may be asking dear reader why such different reactions to the show from first to second viewing. My answer; the passage of time. I have learnt that the theatre can do so much more. Thirty odd years ago I confess to yawning through Othello, having barely any idea what was going on (like so many things you only get out what you put in with big Will) and desperate to get out before the pubs closed. I was, in so many ways, a twat then. The pity is, albeit in different ways, I still am.

Note this review is tardy even by my lax standards. I figured this show ain’t going anywhere.

Final note. I see that some of the supporting cast are termed Urchin/Whore and some Whore/Urchin in the programme. Not sure which is better.

 

Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Dessert

Southwark Playhouse, 5th August

Dessert is the first play I have seen from actor/playwright Oliver Cotton and I have to say that overall I enjoyed it. Subtle it ain’t but it makes its points with a deal of humour, and occasionally, an enlightening punch. The title gives an insight: it’s a dinner party, dessert is coming, until a turn of events forces characters and audience to contemplate whether what they get in life is fair: whether they get their “just desserts”.

Hugh Fennell (played with amoral certainty by Michael Simkins) is a very rich self made man, who seems to have made his money buying and selling public companies. (As usual with dramatic accounts of “people in finance” Mr Cotton exhibits a pretty shaking understanding of how modern, neo-liberal mixed economies work which irks me immensely, but, no matter, we have our demon). He and his underwritten wife, Gill, (Alexandra Gilbreath) are entertaining American friends, slimey Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and Meredith (Teresa Banham). Dinner is served by Roger (a fine Graham Turner), the Fennells’ “man” who from the off shows signs of mental instability. The dinner party sets up a quick debate around provenance in art, price and value via Hugh’s newly acquired “maybe” Giorgione.

Cue the arrival of Eddie Williams (a splendid performance littered with malevolent sarcasm from Stephen Hagan). Now I would hesitate to call the “elite class dinner party interrupted by a stranger (real or imagined) with malicious intent” hackneyed but it is hardly untested. No matter. It works. Eddie is a soldier, leg damaged in Afghanistan, whose newsagent Dad invested life savings (lesson: always diversify your assets) into one of Hugh’s “companies”. It went belly up though Hugh somehow secured a whopping pension as a result. We then have an accident with the aforementioned painting and heated arguments over whether the Fennells and Barnes’s “deserve” their wealth. Some of this is perfunctory but some is insightful and there are a couple of speeches from Eddie which Stephen Hagan invests with real passion. No dumb squaddie cliche here. And the twist by which Eddie plans to exact revenge is sweet.

Under Trevor Nunn’s direction the play trips along and nothing is left uncovered. It is laugh at loud at points. But it is simplistic. That is not to say we need some even-handed defence extolling the virtues of capitalism. Far from it. But once its main point is made the play doesn’t really move on. Still full house at the SP who clearly loved it.