August 27th 2011
Les Miserables is one of those musical blockbusters which must constantly irk and mystify hostile and snotty theatre critics of yesteryear. They almost unanimously slagged it off as a load of pretentious, pop opera, rubbish which did little justice to Victor Hugo’s sprawling masterpiece. Twenty five years on and it is still giving out the old two fingers all over the world. The public loved it in 1985 and they still do. And it is easy to see why. The main characters are richly and simply drawn. The condensed narrative is surprisingly easy to follow. And the through composed music has a lyricism which is both heavenly and stimulating. In short, it knocks spots off most other modern musicals. If Boublil and Schonberg’s genius wasn’t fully recognised all those years ago, it certainly is now. Wherever it plays Les Mis and its barricades continues to pack them in.But if the show is virtually gilt edged as an audience draw, it stills needs careful packaging and theatrical punch to make it the experience it deserves to be. Especially so if you are doing it as a summer school project in two weeks and involving sixty plus performers from ten to late teens. I am not sure whether directors Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead need certifying or canonising, but in Dunstable last week they proved that anything, given commitment and talent, is possible. However you look at it Empire Theatre Arts gave us an awesome production. The bare black stage and the copious use of atmospheric smoke effects allowed for seamless scene changes, and Fred Rayment’s superlative use of lighting did the rest. Easy really when you know how. I may have quibbled slightly at the over reliance on that smoke in act one, but in the revolutionary act two it really came into its own. Never more so than at the ghostly disappearance of the magnificent, essential, barricade. Dressed with the dead and dying and brilliantly lit by Mr Rayment you just gasped at the perfect theatricality.
Given such astute packaging this show would have been an unqualified hit even if the individual performers had only been so-so. I mean, sixty youngsters. There are bound to be a few who drag it down. But whether by luck or sheer genius the two directors put together a team without a single weak link anywhere on the stage and firmly placed this production in the ‘magnificent’ category. Acting was truthful and sincere, ensemble playing was clever and disciplined, and much of the singing lifted and stirred this ageing, cynical, heart. A lot of credit for the latter must go to Graham Thomson’s sensitive and skilled musical direction, including evocative keyboards, but those in charge need the ones who strut the stage. And Miss O’Hare and Mr Mead combined the talents so well I am seriously thinking of taking up stamp collecting or fly fishing. I left thinking I couldn’t do that. Not in two weeks. Not ever.
With such a show you probably don’t receive any thanks for singling out any individual performer. You can’t mention them all and those neglected may feel they had less to offer. It ain't true folks. From the boy who constantly got slapped on his innocent head to the raucous lovely ladies of the night, all played their part. But of the main players Stuart Grey impressed for the maturity of his fugitive Valjean and Ollie Slade for the commanding presence of the nasty, but ultimately troubled, Javert. Katherine Knight touched the heart for the sincerity of the doomed Fantine and Tara Patterson and John Douglas were the superbly grotesque Thenardiers. I cannot pay Mr Douglas’s portrayal any higher accolade than that his brilliantly costumed scoundrel landlord invoked memories of Alun Armstrong. If he doesn’t think that is praise he should look him up. Imogen Gurney as Little Cosette and Katie Ross as the elder version both acted and sang with exceptional beauty, and James Clark and Jahale Juredini Mcleod showed in a multitude of roles the depth of this large cast.
Much of the action takes place against the background of a student uprising in 1832, hence those barricades that everyone knows so well, and Cameron Hay’s portrayal of revolutionary leader Enjolras particularly impressed. His character does not have any of the individual focus that much of the narrative allows (wot! no girlfriend) and he can easily get lost in all the action. But Mr Hay acted his part beautifully and died even better. His barricade sprawl is to be savoured by those who like such things. His companion in student arms, Jamie Pritchard as Marius, turned in a beautifully crafted performance and was well matched by the enchanting acting and singing of Pari Shahmir’s thwarted Eponine. Her ‘On My Own’ was exceptionally fine and one of my numerous highlights.
So I name you all these characters and don’t spell out a plot which has more strands to it than Agatha Christie at her convoluted best. Suffice to say it is all to do with the fugitive Valjean and the folks he gets involved with on his travels. Including a liberal helping of riots to give Les Mis a topical ring which, in truth, is always with us. But I quite like this sort of rioting from our youngsters. I may be old but I can engage with the young, especially when they are as talented as Empire Theatre Arts. I wonder what those pipe sucking, slippered and ageing theatre critics think in their old folk’s home. ‘Les Miserables? Won’t run for more than week.’ The world, over twenty five years, and Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead over three nights in Dunstable, have proved them spectacularly wrong. Magnificent. Haven’t I said that somewhere?