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Les Misérables - Milton Keynes Theatre

Nic Greenshields as Javert. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

I love being able to, every so often, step off the reviewing circuit and attend a production purely because it was recommended to me by fellow theatregoers. I hadn’t been to the theatre in Milton Keynes before – it’s (un)imaginatively called the Milton Keynes Theatre – and, at least from the front stalls, it’s a very comfortable seating experience. It’s also an opportunity to get acquainted with aspects of the theatrical experience patrons do – I know I’m going to sound like a smug pain in the arse, but one does get used to the press night treatment, with a separate ticket collection point and programmes and drinks vouchers handed to me without me even asking, by smiley and chatty press representatives who will do their damn hardest to answer any questions I may have.

And so, I am about to say things I’d never bother saying in a review. The programme for the touring production of Les Misérables is £6, but this cannot be purchased at the merchandise stand, which sells practically everything else from keyrings to T-shirts (one design has ‘24601’ on it – if you know, you know) to badges to a cast recording (from what I could see, of the 2010 touring production cast) to coffee mugs. The chap at the merchandise stand advised me to approach one of the bars. The queues for every single one were, with twenty-five minutes before curtain up, beyond ridiculous, with a long queue for the ladies conveniences intersecting one of the bar queues, resulting in a lot of people saying “so sorry”, “excuse me” and “pardon me”, and so forth, and people asking if ‘this’ was the queue for the ladies. I did my best to keep a straight face as I told a woman that if ‘this’ was the queue for the ladies, I would like to know, because if it is, I am stood in the wrong line.

It seemed rather absurd to me to have to stand in a bar queue just to get a programme, so I tried my luck and went into the auditorium, where a lady directing people to their rows told me they didn’t have any programme sellers in the auditorium (at an ATG venue, no less) so I would have to head to a bar, or otherwise I could scan a QR code, duly supplied, and I could order whatever I wanted from my seat. “Sorry, ordering is not available at this time,” said the link, which itself took a while to load because the 4G signal isn’t very good at the theatre, so I had to log in to the theatre’s free WiFi.

Back out to the – admittedly large – foyer, and to the back of an even longer queue at the bar. But then, a couple of minutes afterwards, a woman stood adjacent to the box office was holding a programme aloft, with no queue in front of her. A-ha! So I did that thing where one tries to look casual and stroll my way over, when in fact I couldn’t have been more pleased.

The screens at the bar, meanwhile, were showing promotional videos for Les Misérables and Bat Out of Hell back to back, which momentarily threw me, mostly because the ‘old’ promos featuring the London cast were still being used for ‘BOOH’. But watching those videos while stood in line also made me wonder: would Andrew Polec make a good Enjolras?

At the interval, there was a substantial queue for the gents as well as for the ladies’ toilets. I had decided to queue at the bar first and finally get myself a drink and pop over to the loo at the three minute call. I still found myself in a queue, though I managed to get back in time. I assume there must have been women who either missed the start of Act Two or otherwise held tight until after the show. Mind you, there are a couple of bars within easy reach, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the more savvy, regular patrons of the Milton Keynes Theatre knew which pub to pop in unnoticed in order to use their conveniences.

Noticing Will Barratt was on for Jean Valjean (the big role is normally played by Dean Chisnall, who has also done it on Shaftesbury Avenue), Barratt’s usual role would itself be covered by someone else (Jamie Pritchard, as I worked out later), I wasn’t going to try to work out whatever else was going on in such a big cast in terms of covers, swings and understudies, so I tweeted photos of the cast list and suggested the @WestEndCovers account make what they will of it. No announcement was made regarding the understudy Valjean performing, and no slip in the programme.

Barratt did a good job, giving a confident and assured performance, comfortably striking the high notes in ‘Bring Him Home’ perfectly and giving the impression that this is someone who cares deeply about his adopted daughter Cosette (Paige Blankson) and, later, her love interest Marius (Will Callan). His reaction and interaction with Fantine (Katie Hall) after she tells him, “You had your foreman send me away,” were particularly moving (at least for me), and I felt I understood the character watching his take on it more than any other time I’ve seen the show (I lost count a while back with regards to how many times I’ve been back over the years).

I also felt I understood the show as a whole a lot more than ever before in terms of its relatively complex storyline. Yes, on one level it’s about a whole bunch of youngsters who sing ‘Drink With Me’, and drink loads, such that they can’t shoot straight the following day, and that’s why most of them die in battle. But as ardent fans of the show will doubtless testify, there’s so much more going on than that: Thénardier (Ian Hughes) and his wife, only known as Madame Thénardier (Helen Walsh), run a hotel, unscrupulously, while also engaging in low-level gang activity, and it’s something of a damning indictment on contemporary society that there are still people on shop and factory floors being paid not very much who find ways of supplementing their low income by way of unregulated sex work.

And so on, and so on, and so forth. Such is the enduring beauty of ‘Les Miz’, as a sign outside the Milton Keynes Theatre colloquially calls it, much to the chagrin of purists (probably the same ones who are still up in arms about the show being redesigned, with the famed revolve consigned to history). There’s much to take away from it (I started making a list at this point but deleted it as it became too long, and there still would have been themes I’m sure I would have left out).

An identical set is used on Shaftesbury Avenue, and that one is impressive, which makes the one that goes out on tour all the more so. When Javert (Nic Greenshields, who gives the character a combination of sinister persistence and resigned weariness) calls it a day (so to speak: I’m trying to avoid outright spoilers just in case there are one or two readers who, for whatever reason, have yet to see the show), the visual effects are stunning.

Vishal Soni, young Gavroche at this performance, had excellent stage presence. I hope he goes far. Will Callan, interestingly, has been plucked straight out of college (that is, not drama school) into the role of Marius. Well, he’s good, and at the age of 18 there’s a maturity in his acting that betrays his tender years. Vocally speaking, I have no complaints: I’ve heard considerably worse Mariuses (Mariï?) before.

Jo Parsons, this production’s resident director, has done an incredible job – the show runs at three hours (I’m old enough to remember when it ran for longer than that), and by running just a few minutes longer than its West End counterpart, it doesn’t feel rushed through. There are nuances galore throughout, with emphasis on certain lyrics placed in such a way that gives extra meaning to what characters are singing. Ben Ferguson at the conductor’s podium and his orchestra glide through some subtle and highly effective changes. My fellow theatregoers were quite right – it is worth heading out of town to catch the tour, and it is a superior production to the one on Shaftesbury Avenue, in the sense that it’s more engaging, more refined and frankly, more delightful. What a pleasure to have joined in this crusade.

Will Callan as Marius, with supporting cast in background. Photo credit: Danny Kaan.

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