I can’t begin to review this performance without first acknowledging that Ramin Karimloo was scheduled to be Jean Valjean on this evening but had to pull out due to sickness. Like many people in the audience, I had chosen to see les mis on this occasion over all the other shows primarily to see him in this role. And I’m not going to lie, I was crushingly disappointed.
That being said, it is the nature of live, long running theatre that you can never guarantee what performer you will see. Everyone gets sick now and again, especially when pushing themselves hard, as Ramin has been. Would you go into work if you were sick? Let this be a reminder that when you book to see a show, you are doing just that – booking to see the show, not the performer.
Robert Vickers was the understudy on this occasion and it cannot have been easy performing to an audience full of disappointed people expecting to see Ramin. It was obvious that he was giving the performance everything he had, I don’t think he could have tried harder. The only problem was his voice just wasn’t strong enough, struggling to hold the crucial note at the end of ‘2,4,6,0,1’ in ‘Who am I’ and again during the dying scene. With the latter he tried to cover it up by turning it into the pain the character would have been feeling, which was entirely plausible, but it was still a definite glitch. There was also a moment, where he must have picked up the chair in the wrong way after the confrontation scene and it fell apart in his hands.
It must be noted that Robert Vickers is the 2nd cover and possibly not well rehearsed and much less familiar with the part than even Christopher Jacobsen (1st cover) would have been. There was someone at the front of the auditorium who was showing a lot of encouragement for him with much cheering after the big numbers and I’m pleased that he had this support. It’s just unfortunate that some less forgiving theatre goers around me wouldn’t put aside their disappointment to appreciate what they did have.
And what we did have was an otherwise brilliant cast. There were 2 other understudies performing on this evening and they were two that I’d actually been hoping to see over the main ones - Fra Fee as Marius and Scott Garnham as Enjolras. I’ve been aware of them for a while and heard only good things and they didn’t disappoint.
The female leads were technically very good, even if I wasn’t blown away. Alexia Khadime as Eponine has a strong voice but at times it got a little too nasally for my liking. Perhaps I was always going to be harsh in my opinion of Eponine, though, as Samantha Barks was perfect in that role to me.
I have to give mention to Katy Secombe (who, I later found out, is the daughter of Harry Secombe) and Cameron Blakely as the comic relief in the form of the Thénardiers. I particularly loved the part during the beggars banquet where Thénardier spins her right off into the wings, literally stopping the show as if it were a mistake – nice touch.
For me, the absolute standout performance goes to Hadley Fraser as Javert. There is something reminiscent of Philip Quast’s Javert in his sneering portrayal and he has this presence that is essential for the character – an oppressing authority with unwavering conviction in what he believes is good & bad. Hadley is well matched to this role, much more than he was to the role of Raoul for Phantom 25.
A note to the director, though – can’t something be done about Javert’s exit after his suicide? The rolling off stage always makes me laugh in a moment which is supposed to be sombre and I heard someone behind me chuckling too. It is a bit of a moment killer.
I also want to give some recognition to James Charlton, a swing filling in one of the student roles. There was something magnetic about him, that stage presence which pulls ones attention and he has this. I particularly liked an interjection he made after Grantaire sings ‘I’ve never seen him ooo and ahh’ after which he pitches in with ‘Oh, this time you’ve gone too far, Grantaire’. I don’t know if that’s always in it and I’ve just never heard it so clearly or if he adlibbed it. Whichever way, it made me smile.
I really noticed the use of cold, uplighting during this performance highlighting the more sinister turns – for example the latter half of ‘lovely ladies’ where it turns from being a fairly light-hearted look at the life to which these women have resigned themselves to the nightmarish reality – an atmosphere created purely by a small change in lighting state creating looming shadows against the grey wall behind them. The same technique is used for the transition from the wedding chorale to beggars at the feast where the Thénardiers take over the scene and it’s transformed into something distorted.
So, Ramin may not have been in it, but it’s still an amazing show and a captivating, heart wrenching story put together into this phenomenon that has seen many performers come and go. A production that is worth booking whether there’s a well known performer or not. I’m not saying there weren’t times I was wondering how Ramin would have sung certain parts or how he would have portrayed the character, but that wasn’t how it worked out and sometimes you just have to except that, move on and enjoy the show and the cast you are presented with. You may even discover someone new.