Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo’s magisterial novel of the same name, has been performed in London since 1985, making it the West End’s longest-running show.
Indeed, this musical is a global behemoth, having been staged in dozens of countries and in more than 20 languages to over 120 million people.
Anyone who has seen the spectacular touring production running at the Theatre Royal in Norwich will find it easy to understand why Les Misérables has become such a standout show.
The moment the curtain is raised to reveal prisoners rowing in brutal conditions on the high seas, the exceptional production values are immediately apparent: brilliant staging, amazing costumes, impressive singing and high drama.
Indeed, in the almost three hours that this show lasted, there are very few quiet moments. Almost every word is sung rather than spoken, and the stage is variously consumed by tension, poignancy, humour and terror.
Set in 18th century France amid the turmoil of the French Revolution, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who adopts the young daughter, Cosette, of a factory worker, Fantine. Throughout, Valjean is tormented by Javert, a prison guard-turned-prison officer who is determined to punish his nemesis for violating his parole.
There are bawdy dockside scenes with prostitutes, dances in grubby and raucous alehouses, dramatic shootouts and eerie encounters amid swirling mist.
While many musicals dazzle with high-speed dancing and pop vocals, this one impresses with the intensity of its drama and the quality of the classical-style singing.
Katie Hall is suitably poignant as the tragic Fantine in her performance of I Dreamed a Dream, while Dean Chisnall is consistently excellent as Valjean, with Bring Him Home a particular highlight. Nic Greenshields, showcasing his remarkable operatic bass voice, is a big audience favourite, as is Joseph Sheppard as the little boy Gavroche.
When this reviewer attended, there was enthusiastic applause throughout, and the curtain call was greeted with an immediate standing ovation.
Les Misérables is a cut above almost anything you can expect to see on stage. Its place in the pantheon of great musicals – and its rousing reception at the Theatre Royal – are both very well deserved.