Venue: Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin
Writer, poet and politician Victor Hugo is widely revered as one of the towering cultural figures of 19th-century Europe. Less known, however, is his considerable gift as a visual artist, primarily because Hugo himself fiercely guarded its very existence. Famously incapable of working on a modest scale, his magnificently gloomy paintings and drawings of city landscapes and stormy seascapes are as impressive and weighty as his great novels Notre Dame de Paris and Les Miserables.
Musically and narratively, Cameron Mackintosh’s internationally acclaimed, long-running productions of ‘Les Mis’ need no introduction or explanation to their worldwide fanbase. But this 2009 reimagined Broadway version, which is embarking on an Ireland and UK-wide tour, was inspired by those monumental paintings and takes stagecraft to a whole new level of theatrical daring.
Laurence Connor and James Powell’s gritty, epic-scale spectacular sits proudly on the vast stage of Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre and, under Ben Atkinson’s musical direction, the live orchestra contributes rich, muscular support. The great ensemble showpieces in the factory, the whorehouse, the tavern and on the barricades of revolutionary Paris are marvellously staged against the backdrop of the paintings, which are integrated into the action with breathtaking projection wizardry.
In the contrasting lead roles of Jean Valjean and his nemesis Inspector Javert, Killian Donnelly and Nic Greenshields are arrestingly powerful. Each in his different way is battling with inner demons. When they meet, barely suppressed violence is inevitable. In terms of personal morality, vocal virtuosity and physicality, theirs is a parallel partnership of equals, with Donnelly bringing a grizzled credibility to a heartfelt performance before his home crowd.
As usual, the signature musical numbers compensate for gaps in the storyline and the closing bars of each one prompt rapturous applause. Still, one wonders why Katie Hall’s glossy blonde bombshell Fantine is directed to deliver her big moment more like a pop anthem than a deep-seated cri de coeur and why Sophie-Louise Dann’s cartoonish Madame Thénardier’s verbal delivery is considerably less sharp than her excellent vocals.
The collective work ethic is admirable and the highly disciplined cast comprises a pleasing blend of innocence and experience. On an individual level, Will Richardson’s mellifluous voice and charismatic presence as the hot-headed student activist Enjolras mark him out as a name to watch for the future.
Runs until 12 January.
An edited version of this review was first published in The Stage on 13 December 2018.