Les Misérables, Queen's Theatre, London

Sadly, this is the future of musical theatre
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The show may have opened in 1985, the story may be set in the early 19th century, but Les Misérables, which has just moved to the Queen's, looks - and sounds - like the future of the musical theatre. That future looks as bleak as the stage on which, through smoke and shadow, one can make out drably dressed actors engaged in suicide, murder, prostitution, and child abuse.

The show may have opened in 1985, the story may be set in the early 19th century, but Les Misérables, which has just moved to the Queen's, looks - and sounds - like the future of the musical theatre. That future looks as bleak as the stage on which, through smoke and shadow, one can make out drably dressed actors engaged in suicide, murder, prostitution, and child abuse.

After 19 years at the Palace Theatre, the show had to make way for renovations to accommodate Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest work, The Woman in White, which opens there this autumn. So it moved to the Queen's, owned by its producer, Cameron Mackintosh, who got to work on the most important aspect of that theatre's renovation before Les Mis opened there. The lobby, now painted the colour of tinned tomato soup, has a shiny new counter and display case offering souvenir merchandise. The ladies' remains tiny, with pinchpenny paper and exposed wiring, but patrons are consoled - or taunted - by the signs announcing that the theatre will eventually be restored to its former spendour. The greatest change, however, and the one with the most potential repercussions, is in the shrinking of the show - and not only visually (the sets have been reduced, and a strip of tenement façade has been slapped on to the walls flanking the stage). While the Palace pit could hold 21 musicians, the bathtub-sized one at the Queen's can fit in no more than 11. The rest of the sound is provided by a computer whose manufacturer assures us that it is designed to supplement, not replace, live musicians - but who, on hearing this, cannot hear the Lear-like question that this begs: Why 11? Why not five? Or two? Why any?

Mackintosh maintains that his only alternative was to close the show, a position that saw off a threatened strike by the Musicians' Union. But the result is another nail pounded into the coffin of that constantly critical patient, the so-called live theatre - where the audience would feel cheated if the singers weren't wearing microphones.

Mikes or not, one seldom hears Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics, though that can be a blessing.

The sound is puny when it should be lush - indeed, it's ironic that this of all shows should have been downsized and mechanised, since the orchestration has to do a hero's job to put some life into Claude-Michel Schonberg's music (which, in turn, has to give us the involvement missed out by the flash-card plot and flat characterisations). This is a show with lots and lots of surging lines flung toward a bawled climax or, for a predictable surprise, a throbbing diminuendo. The lack of depth and lushness left me cold.

The show's free-floating self-assertion and absence of humanity make it an exemplar of our times. The audience sat in silent respect throughout, applauded the numbers wildly, and rose, applauding, at the end. To paraphrase André Gide's opinion of Victor Hugo: What's the most characteristic musical in the West End? Les Misérables, alas.

Comments