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Review: Les Miserables at Liverpool Empire *****

Three decades and counting since it first manned the barricades at the Barbican, Les Misérables has become not just a piece of theatre but a theatrical event.

And sitting in the expectant atmosphere of a capacious, sold-out auditorium in the Liverpool Empire, it certainly feels like one.

This current UK tour from producing powerhouse Cameron Mackintosh (who was there at the start some 34 years ago), showcases Les Mis’s latest stage iteration which makes extensive use of improving technology to bring an added dimension to the storytelling.

The visuals, some of which are reportedly based on author Victor Hugo’s original sketches, are often paired with a bare stage to great effect, while at other times great skeletons of Parisien tenements or street barricades slide seamlessly in from the wings.

Lit in the muddy tones of a Rembrandt painting by lighting designer Paule Constable, the production is a feast of striking tableaux from the convicts at their oars to the doomed students on their barricades, via the irresistible gurning ghastliness of the Thénardiers as they cavort in their spit and sawdust hostelry, providing much-needed light relief.

Above: Martin Ball as 'master of the house' Thénardier. Top:the barricades. Photos by Helen Maybanks

Martin Ball and Sophie-Louise Dann create a colourful partnership as the wily chancers, although they’re given a run for their money by Joseph Sheppard (one of three Gavroches on tour) who breezily picks scenes from the pockets of his much older and taller fellow actors.

It may be one of the world’s best-loved musicals, but Les Mis is essentially operatic in scale with its arias, duets and recitatives.

Here the powerful performances proving an embarrassment of riches – not least Killian Donnelly whose versatile vocals take reformed convict Jean Valjean from sweet hope to passionate despair and back, and Nic Greenshields’ towering baritone as the obsessed lawman Javert.

Katie Hall, who has previously impressed Empire audiences as Maria in West Side Story and Christine in Phantom, is a charming if rather fleeting presence as the doomed Fantine, while Tegan Bannister generates a feisty stage presence as Eponine and Bronwen Hanson bring a warmth of character and bright soprano tone to the role of Cosette.

And Will Richardson proves a persuasive melodic orator as rebel student leader Enjolras.

Nic Greenshields as Javert. Photo Helen Maybanks

Meanwhile the ensemble creates a superlative sound in the big set piece scenes including Red and Black, One Day More and the finale.

Do you hear he people sing? You certainly do.

A couple of tiny storytelling niggles aside (the lack of previous context for Javert’s suspicion of monsieur le mayor’s immense strength, the slightly hokey-looking sewer visuals) this Les Mis is a slickly staged musical masterpiece that deserves every one of the standing ovations I suspect it’s going to get during its Liverpool run.

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