When Les Miserables first opened at the Barbican Theatre in 1985, no one could have predicted the phenomenon it became. Many of the reviews were sniffy, even downright hostile: the late Jack Tinker famously dubbed it “The Glums”, an epithet that stuck as solidly as Paint Never Dries has now stuck to Love Never Dies.
But as Michael Coveney pointed out and I already quoted yesterday, it wasn’t entirely slated, either, receiving “at least four rave reviews — from Benedict Nightingale, myself, Clive Hirschhorn and Sheridan Morley.” It’s striking, though, that none of that quartet are where they were then, either: Sheridan is no longer with us at all, Benedict retired earlier this year, Clive is now long retired from the Sunday Express (whose berth I now occupy) and Michael himself is now on Whatsonstage.com instead of full-time on a paper.
And last night’s official return of Les Mis to the Barbican finds itself in a mostly new guise, too.
There are some echoes of the original production in the re-fitting, in every sense, of Andreane Neofitou’s original costumes, and the occasional staging borrowing like the ‘One Day More’ finale which, even without the trademark revolve of the original, has the company moving in a tight triangular forward motion as a massive flag is waved above them. But just as the RSC, who co-produced the original production, have long abandoned the concrete bunker of the Barbican, they are now banished from the billing and most of the memory of this new production: they are only mentioned in a programme note by producer Cameron Mackintosh that explains its genesis there.
It was Trevor Nunn, then artistic director of the RSC, whose idea, Mackintosh says, it was “to open the show at the Barbican as a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company, rather than my original plan to open ‘cold’ in the West End. And though I had insisted that we produce it at the Barbican as a full-blown operatic musical using every West End resource, there is no doubt that the long rehearsal period and the rehearsal process being undertaken in a similar manner to the same production team’s groundbreaking Nicholas Nickleby had a profound and lasting beneficial effect in bringing Les Miserables to life.”
And he goes on, “I am very proud that as a side benefit our show has made an enormous financial contribution to the RSC’s ability to produce great work over the past two and a half decades.”
But just as the RSC have moved on, they interestingly remain committed to musicals that in the succeeding years have ranged from the downright disastrous (Carrie and Merry Wives - the Musical) to more successful shows like a revival of Kiss Me, Kate and the British premiere of The Secret Garden, both of which transferred from Stratford-upon-Avon to the West End, and will in November see them produce a new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
And as the RSC’s productions of their house playwright prove, there’s no one right way to do a Shakespeare play, of course, so it’s entirely appropriate that Mackintosh should reserve the right to offer a new look, too, at a musical that has become a modern classic. After 25 years, Les Miserables was ready for a make-over, though it’s interesting that that wasn’t extended to the cast, many of whom have played the same roles in previous incarnations of the show, whether in the West End, in concert or on tour.
But then it is also a striking fact just how few actors have actually played Valjean over the years in the West End: for a show that has run for 25 years now, the number barely reaches double digits.
While Les Mis back at the Barbican gives me pause as I take stock of the years that have passed since I first saw it there, across town at the Duchess Theatre Michael Gambon is playing a 69-year-old man who is reviewing a ledger of his life and replaying the tapes he has made and kept from thirty years earlier in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. This, too, sets up multiple echoes: the last play that Gambon did in the West End was Pinter’s No Man’s Land at the Duke of York’s, and it was the last production of one of his plays that Pinter saw before he died. And Krapp’s Last Tape was the last production that Pinter himself starred in, too, when he briefly played the part at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs four years ago.
Gambon is rightly nominated on the shortlist to The Stage’s newly-launched public poll to name the greatest stage actor of all time. As one of the industry panel of 16 who helped draw up the list, I have to confess that I voted mainly from experience but partly also from reputation, and I assume my fellow judges did the same thing which accounts for the fact that the final shortlist reflects actors all of whom I have been lucky enough to see onstage in my theatregoing lifetime (even if, in the case of Laurence Olivier, it was only as a hologram in Time - the Musical).
But it’s also rather wonderful that we can see several of them right now: as well as Gambon at the Duchess, Mark Rylance began performances last night in the Broadway transfer of La Bete and Vanessa Redgrave begins performances in a Broadway revival next month of Driving Miss Daisy.