Les Miserables, Ariel Company Theatre, The Capitol, Horsham, November 15
Every time I see an Ariel musical I’m always blown away by the sheer professionalism on display.
From the pitch perfect and powerful singing to the convincing and expressive acting, a big Ariel production never fails to amaze.
But, looking through the programme at the end, I’m always surprised too.
Seeing the faces of the mostly teenage cast, I remember that these are actually very young people on stage who have lost themselves in their adult roles to deliver a show that would deserve a standing ovation in the West End.
Les Miserables is no exception.
The music, the choreography, the heart-rending performances – it all fuses together beautifully to create a thrilling piece of theatre that stays with you well after the final song.
Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. After he is released in 1815, he steals some silver from the Bishop of Digne but the bishop doesn’t turn him in. Instead he gives Valjean a second chance and the newly inspired former thief breaks his parole to start a new life.
However, the policeman who released Valjean on parole, Javert, vows to capture him once again and becomes obsessed with the fugitive.
In 1823, under the new identity of a factory owner called Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean meets Fantine, a woman who is struggling to take care of her daughter Cosette. Fantine dies and Valjean decides to look after her daughter. Things really get complicated nine years later, in 1832, when an adult Cosette falls in love with student revolutionary Marius who is preparing for a battle in Paris against the government. To make things worse, Javert is there to help crush the rebellion.
Alexander Emery is a particularly strong Jean Valjean, taking his character on a fascinating journey from desperate criminal to dignified businessman and then to honourable revolutionary. There’s some subtle make-up to indicate the passing of years, but it’s not as effective as Alexander’s acting as he conveys the burden of a long and arduous life.
Rob Sands is excellent as Javert, presenting a ruthless and driven antagonist, whose actions are brutal but not motivated by cruelty. In his big solo number ‘Stars’ Rob lets us sympathise with Javert, revealing that his pursuit of Valjean is a kind of holy duty for him.
Jack Barnard gives a winning performance as Marius, showing an intelligent and idealistic young man who is woefully unprepared for war or romance. The way he pines for Cosette is endearing but it’s also hard to watch because he does it right in front of Eponine, a lower-class woman who secretly loves him as well. Marius may think he understands love but he’s frustratingly blind to Eponine’s affections.
Speaking of Eponine, Sophie Bowman delivers arguably the best number in the show, ‘On My Own’. It’s a stunning moment as Sophie reveals her character’s hope and pain with a voice that gets a huge round of applause.
Zoe Martin earns the same response with the notoriously sad song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, drawing out Fantine’s bitterness at the cruel realities of life.
At the other end of the financial spectrum, Ellie Rayward really conveys how compassionate and understanding Cosette is when it comes to the plight of the poor. Cosette’s a sensitive and anxious young lady, not just voicing concern for those at the bottom of the social ladder, but for her own adoptive father (Valjean) whose mysterious past disturbs her.
Bill Gankerseer is impressive as Enjolras, the dashing leader of the 1832 rebellion. Comfortable as the charismatic revolutionary, he is convincing as a young man who could lead the downtrodden into battle.
But not all the characters in Les Mis are diamonds in the rough or good people who were pushed into a life of crime.
Tom Clark and Ella Hamlin, for example, have a great time as the grotesque Mr and Mrs Thenardier. They’re constantly fighting each other, laughing at those who have less than them, or trying to con the well-off. On paper, they’re rather dark characters but Tom and Ella get a lot of laughs with their comically exaggerated antics.
The rest of the performers are on fine form as well. Harvey Thorn as Grantiere, Etienne Feranc as Bambtabois, Zack Fewtrell as the Bishop of Digne, Thomas Drage as Gavroche, Molly Brown as Little Cosette, Emma Smith as Little Eponine and the ensemble – everyone gives this musical their best.
Oscar Laughton played Gavroche and Isla Turner played Little Cosette on the evening I didn’t see but I’m certain their performances were first class as well.
Credit also has to go to director Neil Hopson, choreographer Bev Locke and producers Nicci Hopson and Caroline Rogers, as well as musical director Andy Stewart and the fabulous orchestra, who put in a ton of work behind the scenes.
Les Miserables is an intense experience and, as the title suggests, it deals with some pretty depressing subjects, which are never shied away from.
But it’s an uplifting tale too about the power of the human spirit, and the young Ariel performers truly bring it to life with passion, confidence and pure talent.