As the smash hit musical Les Miserables comes to Bradford we talk to the actor playing Jean Valjean

Killian Donnelly is sitting under a tree in a park in Plymouth, in ?the sunshine. Keeping him company is Mr Hooper, a Caverpoo who travels with him while on tour.

A scenes from Les Miserables now at Bradford Alhambra. Picture: Helen Maybanks
A scenes from Les Miserables now at Bradford Alhambra. Picture: Helen Maybanks

An actor’s life for Donnelly, it seems, is not a bad way to live.

The actor’s days might be full of this kind of relaxation, but it is not some kind of idle wasting away of time. Donnelly is consciously, deliberately taking it easy.

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In fairness to him, he will that evening be taking on one of the greatest and most demanding roles in musical theatre – indeed, in any kind of theatre.

People power: The hit musical Les Miserables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is at Bradford Alhambra over the next month. Picture: Helen Maybanks.

Donnelly is playing the key role of Jean Valjean in the UK tour of Les Miserables. It is the Hamlet of musical roles.

“It’s important to do nothing. Well, it is for me,” says Donnelly.

“Other people from the cast are up at nine and in the gym, but I have to get into my own rhythm. If you think about it, people with regular nine to five jobs finish work, they might go to the gym, but then they spend the evening relaxing. This, sitting under a tree in the middle of the day, this is my time to relax. I think it’s pretty important.”

Les Miserables has been hugely popular since its creation. Picture: Helen Maybanks

If it sounds like Donnelly is trying to justify his seemingly overly laidback daytime existence, he isn’t.

He doesn’t feel the need to justify his time under the tree with Mr Hooper – and nor should he. Les Miserables is a genuinely extraordinary and epic show in so many ways and much of it rests on the shoulders of the actor taking on the key role of Jean Valjean.

Since 1985 the musical has had audiences rising to their feet as one at the end of every performance in London’s West End. Phenomenon doesn’t really seem to cover it.

It shouldn’t work, of course. It premiered in 1980 in Paris. A musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, theatre impresario extraordinaire Cameron Mackintosh saw the original and created theatrical history.

Mackintosh brought his production to London and sparked the longest running musical in the West End – and so much more. There is an exceptional BBC documentary about British musicals and how the Brits conquered Broadway with the form.

It recognises that Mackintosh bringing Les Mis, as it would become known, to the stage, 
was a key moment in the 1980’s rise of the musical, a moment which had an enormous and long lasting impact on theatre itself.

It has been seen by 70 million people in 52 countries and 22 languages around the world.

Set in early 19th century France, it tells the story of French peasant Jean Valjean, sentenced to 19 years in prison 
for stealing bread for a starving child. After escaping jail, 
he is pursued relentlessly by police inspector Javert – and their tale plays out against 
the backdrop of the revolutionary unrest in France.

In 2009 a new production was created by Mackintosh and team to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first production. The new production went on to break more box office records and, perhaps most importantly, inspired the movie starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and a whole galaxy of other movie stars.

Donnelly, who played a key role in the new production, 
was asked to also appear in the movie alongside Jackman and the rest.

Now he is taking Valjean around the country and bringing the production to Bradford Alhambra for the next month.

“One of the main reasons I said yes was because I had never toured before,” says Donnelly.

“Touring seems to be one of those things that some people love and some people hate.

“I’ve lived in London for 12 years (he’s been in West End musicals from Billy Elliot to Sweeney Todd and Phantom of the Opera) and going on tour seemed a great way to get out of London and see the rest of the country that I’ve never seen for free.”

The beauty of this particular tour, he says, is that it isn’t a week here and there, but long runs, like the month in Bradford, sustainable because so many people want to see the show in each region it visits.

“I get to unpack and explore places. I’ve already been told that I’ll be able to have a really good curry when I get to Bradford.”

There was a fairly major problem, however. The week after he was asked to join the tour, Mr Hooper the Caverpoo became Donnelly’s new best friend.

“Turns out Cameron loves dogs. He was more than happy for me to have Mr Hooper with me.”

How does it actually work?

“He sleeps. Most of the theatres allow a dog backstage – Bradford does – so he comes to the theatre and sleeps for three hours on his dog bed in the dressing room. I feel like Barbara Streisand when I arrive with him.”

After several months on the road, time in London playing the role of Valjean and several months ahead, you can understand why Donnelly finds comfort in the familiarity of his dog.

“I do live like a monk. I steam every night, drink lots of water, I might have a drink on Saturday night after the show, because I know that I won’t be singing again until Monday, but that’s it. The rest of it is very monk-like,” he says.

And of course he does manage to find time to relax during the day.

Les Miserables, Bradford Alhambra, to August 10. Tickets

Award-winning record-breaking show

Les Miserables was first staged in London in 1985 by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Centre, then the London home of the RSC. The success of the West End musical led to a Broadway production.

It has broken box office records the world over, both on stage and on screen.

There is also a record-breaking concert of the 
music with the songs 
from the production going 
on to becoming some of the most popular songs of the last three decades, including I Dreamed a Dream, One Day More and Do You Hear the People Sing.