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Before you read this, I would personally like to say that I don't agree with this review.... but each to his own I guess.... Come to Sydney, see the show yourself and make up you own mind!


Banalities at the Barricades

Les Miserables, Theatre Royal, November 28, Sydney, Australia

There are many aspects to admire in a work which displays such universal appeal as Les Miserables. On Saturday night, a finely realised return 10th anniversary season - with many new and talented faces - was rapturously received. Clearly I was the odd one out, but for the third time the work almost entirely failed to engage me.

The new line-up is capable and committed, but without the charisma of the original casting. Natalie Mendoza as Eponine is a star to watch. And David Campbell, a mini-star just back from New York, has yet to find the potency of the production's one great song, "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables".

Dave Willets, as the escaped ex-criminal Jean Valjean, and Michael McCarthy as Javert, the man who stalks him, are good without being outstanding.

Understandably, few performers can match the likes of Philip Quast, whom many of us have seen playing Javert, but this is one musical which, with its focus on the sweep of history, is weak in its individual characterisations and truly outstanding performances do make a difference.

Negative criticism of a musical seems to be generally regarded as party-pooping. As a professional critic, who sees a hundred shows a year, it is difficult to be swept away by the predictable. Andrew Lloyd Webber might be the master of the banal, but at least he supplies us with some tasteless quirks. The music of Les Mis is almost entirely devoid of surprise.

Perhaps this helps explain the mass appeal. Even if you've never heard the song, you know exactly what note's coming next. And just when you think one of the more horrible melodies has been done to death, it comes back from the grave to torture you further. And probably a couple more times after that.

Les Mis stands as a great musical monument to the put-upon-classes. It takes the side of the Parisian poor in their struggle to overturn the self-serving union of old Royals and new mercantile rich who, by the early 1800s, had reduced the lives of millions to penury. It is right to summarise the book as a struggle between the lower classes and the better off, and it is a nice sentiment on which to hang a succesful musical. Why not an anthem of hope for today's put-upon-classes?

Underlying the battle of Javert and Jean Valjean we have a subplot featuring two equally pretty young women - Eponine and Cosette (Theresa Borg). Cosette is the orphaned daughter of the factory worker Fantine (Rachel Beck). She grows up with Eponine and her parents, the nasty, grasping Thenardiers (William Zappa and Donna Lee). The Thenardiers run a tavern and treat Cosette as a slave until Valjean buys her from them and gives her a fresh chance in life.

As a young woman Eponine survives on the streets, while Cosette lives well with Valjean, now a factory owner and the mayor. Broken-heartedly, Eponine must watch as the man she loves, the student Marius, falls for Cosette. Humiliatingly, she is required to carry correspondence between the pair which I don't think many jilted women of today would agree to.

I'm surprised more women don't find Les Mis off-putting. Apart from the heroic martyrdom of Eponine at the barricades, still pathetically at Marius's side, the women are strictly divided into the classic stereotypes of breeders and whores. They do not feature in the active struggle, except as bedraggled designer filling. A whole song and dance routine, "Lovely Ladies Waiting in the Dark", is devoted to whoredom, while the rest of the women, in rags, are loaded down with their whingeing litters.

I have other problems with the piece, too complex to pursue in the space of a review. In essence, I sense an inbuilt contradiction. We come away humming a homage to the under-classes. While, on the evidence supplied, and true to history in the longer term, it is others who reap most of the rewards.

Personally, I think Marius chooses the wrong girl. But perhaps we should blame Victor Hugo for this. For most of his life a conservative politically, he changed sides only when the writing was well and truly on the wall. Meanwhile, an incorrigible seducer, he carried his appallingly chauvinistic attitude toowards women to the grave.

Les Mis remains one of the most technically impressive and popular stage spectaculars of our era. This anniversary season is of a high order if not quite awesome enough to transport us out of the banalities and cliches.

Finally, I just don't find the story very well-told. It is almost impossible to follow without resorting to the program notes. We are carried along mostly by the music. And, as I began by saying, the music sucks.

James Waites - Sydney Morning Herald