It's the longest running musical in the world, celebrating 35 years in the West end later this year. When the time came for the Queens (now Sondheim) theatre to close temporarily for refurbishment last year, rather than take a well deserved break, the show moved next door to the Gielgud for a limited engagement 16 week concert production starring a cast that can only be described as a dream.
That production, filmed last December, is now available to download on Amazon, Sky and iTunes, ahead of a DVD release in November. But how does it translate when watching at home?
I went to see the first night of this when it opened in the West end in August 2019. I was so blown away, I described it as a "once in a lifetime experience" when I left the theatre that night. In what is very typical of me, I immediately bought tickets to see it again. Twice was not enough so to have it immortalised to watch as much as my emotions can stand comes as very good news.
The first thing to talk about is the cast. Les Mis is an amazing show at the best of times, but a strong cast makes it all the better. It had always been on my bucket list to see Alfie Boe as Jean ValJean but seeing it in person can only be described as a spiritual experience. Rob Houchen has always been my favourite Marius - a voice like butter and all the emotion required to deliver a stunning performance. I remember loving Shan Ako on The X Factor but didn't expect her to move into theatre - her Eponine, however, was stunning, as was the always reliable Carrie Hope Fletcher as Fantine, who takes her moment to deliver one of the strongest performances of 'I Dreamed A Dream' you'll ever hear. Matt Lucas can always be relied on for comic relief but you will not be prepared for how truly brilliant his Thenardier is, riffing with the equally fantastic Katy Secombe to create a couple I would truly stan (Sorry Marius and Cosette).
Not every cast member hits a home run (only sporting reference you'll ever see here) unfortunately. Michael Ball, while a legend in his own right, feels miscast as Javert. While his 'Stars' is powerful, his performance doesn't quite live up to the other standouts on that stage. Especially when he is performing alongside his predecessor and successor, Bradley Jaden. When they perform together for an encore performance of 'Stars', Bradley is the one who steals focus.
For the most part, performing it as a concert doesn't take too much away from the show. The cast standing still while Valjean supposedly lifts the cart up with his super strength is a strange moment, and the prostitute attack loses its meaning without any staging to go with it. Aside from that though, you don't miss too much, and some of the new additions are incredible. There may not be a big Barricade scene but the use of a reprise of an orchestral version of 'Bring him home' complete with red lighting ensures the heavy gut-punch that scene usually brings is still present.
This was a special performance to see, and watching it at home takes nothing away from it. The 5 Valjeans coming together to sing an encore of 'Bring him home' is every bit as powerful as you'd expect. As we can't see the fantastic new production of the show at the Sondheim for a while longer, this really is the next best thing. Even those who aren't big fans of Les Mis (I have a friend who refers to it as "poverty porn") surely can't deny the winning combination of that flawless song book with some of the most talented performers this country has to offer.
Final thought: If stealing a loaf of bread creates this much excitement, I'm off to my local Tesco.