I remember opening up the envelope and seeing two tickets to Les Misérables in London’s West End. It was my 20th birthday.
It was the same show my Mom had seen years ago when it travelled in Canada. My sister Ally and I were going to Europe two months later, and I hadn’t even thought of seeing a theatre show when we started planning. My family had, and now I had the tickets.
Arriving in London, I barely remember getting off the plane, which had been downgraded after a day’s delay to a smaller Boeing model. I remember my knees being jammed against the seat in front for more than 10 hours, and a long train ride with our luggage, gliding through rows of traditional townhouses on the outskirts of London.
The train arrived at Victoria station, and Ally and I, becoming increasingly groggy from the trip, hailed down one of London’s characteristic cabs, unaware of the terrifying adventure we were about to have.
The cab sped out from the station, tossing us around. It flew onto the opposite side of the road we were accustomed to and barrelled down the road, dodging in and out of traffic, narrowly missing pedestrians. All the while we flew about struggling to hold on. At one point the brakes slammed on, I flew forward, and our cab driver engaged in a screaming match with the driver of a small semi-truck.
Eventually, the cab mercifully slid to a stop and we scrambled out, lesson learned. After some confusion about where our hostel was, and an encounter with an extremely rude English man, we stumbled into our dorm rooms. It was mid-morning in London, sunny and clear. We were so tired from jet lag that it didn’t matter – we both passed out in our beds.
The next four days had stereotypical English weather: dreary, rainy, wet. We donned ponchos, our spirits never dampened even as our hair rebelled from the humidity and rain drops.
The evening finally came for us to attend Les Mis. We got dressed up, although only a few days into our trip, we had already blown up my hair drier, and attempts to rig up a three-stage power converter did not work. We were without hair tools. Oh the humanity!
I remember stepping out into the darkened streets of Whitechapel, where we were staying. There was something macabre and mysterious about this neighbourhood: famed for the Jack the Ripper murders and its seedy past.
It has changed, and we felt safe enough. London’s West End was busy with young adults heading out to clubs and tourists flocking to attend the theatre.
Queen’s Theatre was 101 years old the day we quickly trotted up Shaftesbury Avenue. The face of Cosette stood several storeys tall on the corner of the building. We eagerly handed over our tickets and filed into the 1,100-seat theatre. It was cramped, you were almost sitting on the lap of the person beside you. My knees were again jammed against the balcony, but this time I didn’t care. They’d be like that for the next three hours.
We were far away, but I still felt like I was watching from the front of the stage. The music was incredible, the set was gigantic, rotating and constantly changing. The actors were powerful, funny, serious, intense. When they began “Do You Hear The People Sing,” the audience sang along. It was powerful and epic.
The story of Les Misérables is depressing – it’s written in the name. But seeing it live, I left the theatre feeling oddly inspired, excited and enlivened.
We had skipped dinner before the show because our bodies hadn’t yet adjusted to the time change. Ally and I stopped at a small Italian restaurant, ate dinner then shared tiramisu, and a small snifter of lemon liqueur. We didn’t talk much, we didn’t need to.
And that is why, after leaving the theatre in Kimberley on Monday, I felt confused and still haven’t reached a decision on whether I liked Les Misérables starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe.
How could it ever have compared? I’d lived it, felt it, sat on the edge of a hundred-year old seat for it. I’d raised my glass to cheers my sister, my best friend, in a dimly lit restaurant, and then walked slowly through the dark streets of London home to Whitechapel. We felt like we had just spent the evening in 1907, when the Queen’s Theatre first opened its doors.
Our experience was like reading the book first.