On 8th October 2015, the London Production of Les Miserables celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Here’s our light-hearted look at this most serious-sounding of musicals…
*WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS*
In England, Jean is a girl’s name: Not so in France. Despite the fact that France has strict laws on what parents may name their child, this one slipped through the net. Jean steals some bread, goes to prison, gets parole, nicks some candlesticks, decides to go straight and becomes mayor. Sadly for Jean, he is recognised by a policeman called Javert and winds up on the run with the daughter of a woman who dies following a terrible hairdressing accident.
Fantine is mother to Cosette. France’s law prohibiting the giving of silly names to children seems to have been totally disregarded by Victor Hugo. As if sounding like a fizzy drink wasn’t bad enough, single mum Fantine works in a particularly bitchy factory making “French things”. Sadly, the only other occupations open to French women at the time were selling your own hair and prostitution. Despite having a good go at both, neither goes well for Fantine.
Marius is a student revolutionary who spends most of his time mooning about over the grown-up Cosette (Fantine’s daughter), much to the annoyance of grown-up Eponine who has been stalking him for ages. Marius has the soul of a poet, meaning he does very little work and prefers singing to fighting. Fortunately, Marius tends to be played by very good looking young men straight out of drama school and is therefore very popular with at least 68% of most theatre audiences.
Cosette first appears as a child having hallucinations about a large floating house. This might be a combination of alcohol or fatigue – whatever the cause, it would be churlish to blame Cosette. With an absentee mother and foster-parents who sold her to a man who has most definitely not been CRB checked, it’s a miracle she survives childhood. Sadly, Cosette’s only real skill is fetching water and by the time she grows up, many homes in Paris have taps. Grown-up Cosette spends most of Act Two desperately trying to marry Marius before he realises.
You will know Javert by his “baddie” hat and coat. Coyote to Jean Valjean’s Roadrunner, if you cup your ear you can almost hear a faint “meep meep” every time Valjean gets away. Javert tries so hard to arrest Jean that at times you feel a bit sorry for him. Eventually, Javert realises he has wasted his life in Musical Theatre. He can’t take any more, and quite literally goes “In Seine”.
Daughter of the Thénardiers, Eponine first appears in Les Misérables as a spoilt child from one of several leading stage schools. Life changes for Eponine when she buys a beret and joins the French resistance. Completing the look with a flasher coat, her hobbies include spending time on her own, volunteering at barricades, and walking alone at night. Sadly, her flasher coat turns out to be neither water nor bulletproof and totally unsuitable for a revolution.
Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (basically France’s answer to The Pub Landlord and Jo Brand) could keep an entire social services department in employment. This horrid pair think nothing of selling their own foster child or stealing from the odd dead student or two. Child slavery and grave-robbing are really only hobbies – the Thénardiers also run a highly successful B&B overcharging guests and serving them up sausages using the bits of the cat no-one else would eat.
PROLOGUE: 1815, DIGNE
Kleptomaniac Jean Valjean has just served 19 years for shoplifting. Still a bit light-fingered, he visits the Bishop of Digne where he nicks the church candlesticks. He is surprised when the Bishop covers for him, so Jean decides to give up stealing and have a go at singing.
Eight years later, Jean has skipped parole and decided to go for a more masculine name, Madeleine. He has become a factory owner and Mayor. One of the factory workers is Fantine, a single mum who just can’t find good childcare. Soon unemployed and desperate for cash, Fantine decides she has only two options:
- Sell her hair
Sadly, the bottom seems to have fallen out of the used hair market and so it’s fairly quickly over to plan B. Despite having no hair, Fantine makes a surprisingly popular prostitute. Sadly, she gets into a fight with a punter and is arrested. Jean (Mayor Madeleine) arrives and demands she is taken to hospital instead.
Jean confesses that he is an escaped criminal, and promises he’ll go back to prison if only Javert will let him visit Fantine (presumably with some emergency hair). At the hospital, Fantine just has enough strength left to sing about Cosette, who in a moment of parental madness, she thinks she may have left in a pub.
Jean decides against prison and goes on the run.
Cosette has indeed been staying in a pub – with the Thénardiers and their daughter Eponine. Cosette’s main hobby, fetching water from the well, is slowed by constant “singing stops”. It’s obvious that the Thénardiers are only marginally better parents than Fred and Rose West, so Jean pays them off and takes Cosette back to Paris.
Years pass. Students, angry at the lack of democracy and high tuition fees, start rioting. Amongst them is Marius, who is in love with Cosette.
A gang of street-robbers led by Thénardier and his wife corners Jean and Cosette. They are rescued by Javert, who fails to recognise Jean because of the atmospheric lighting.
The Thénardiers’ daughter, Eponine, reluctantly agrees to help Marius find Cosette, much to the annoyance of the audience who is already starting to find Cosette constantly singing about Marius quite irritating. Eventually, Eponine brings Marius to Cosette in a bid to shut her up.
Eponine prevents an attempt by her father’s gang to rob Jean’s house. Jean, convinced Javert is lurking outside, tells Cosette they must “do a runner”.
The students, keen to do anything to avoid actually studying, decide to build a barricade.
Javert is exposed as a police spy by a child who used to have a song but now only has a couple of lines. Eponine is killed by a musical bullet which causes a slow, operatic death.
Jean arrives at the barricade in search of Marius, where he is given the chance to kill Javert. Instead he chooses to set his nemesis free.
The next day the student rebels are all killed. Jean flees into the Parisian sewers with an unconscious Marius. He discovers Thénardier robbing the corpses of the dead students. Javert lets Jean take Marius to hospital and then, unable to stand any more musical theatre, kills himself.
Marius recovers in Cosette’s care. Jean confesses all about his past nicking stuff and insists he must go away.
At Marius and Cosette’s wedding (which seems very hasty so draw your own conclusions), the Thénardiers attempt to blackmail Marius about Jean’s past. Thénardier calls Cosette’s ‘father’ a murderer and produces a ring stolen from a corpse the night the barricade fell. However, this is Marius’s ring and he immediately realises that it was Jean who rescued him.
Marius takes Cosette to Jean where she learns for the first time of her own history before Jean dies and goes to stand behind a curtain with some other actors who have been having a nice cup of tea in the green room.
We truly believe Les Misérables remains best appreciated live. Les Mis tickets are available for this outstanding original production and are suitable for husbands and boyfriends, many of whom discover that this incredible story moves even them to tears.
For an more in-depth look at the Les Mis characters, we recommend you take a look at this article by Stuart Fernie.
We’d like to say “Merci” to www.pixabay.com for the images!