Les Miserables (School Edition) – Z-Arts Theatre, Manchester. Presented by Manchester Musical Youth – Review

By on July 22, 2016


Reviewer Rating: StarStarStarStarStar

Not everyone knows the wonderfully tragic-heroic novel by Victor Hugo, but I think almost everyone will know something at least about one of the most popular and long-running Musical shows ever. A phenomenon in its own right. The Musical which bears the same title as the novel, Les Miserables. In English this translates rather miserably (a-hem) to ‘The Miserable Ones’. But at least it does give us a clue as to what to expect from a show with such a title. This is not going to be an all-dancing Fred Astaire type of show! However, this is a truly dramatic and tragic tale of epic proportions which shows how justice, virtue and love will conquer in the end. Unlike the Greek form of tragedy, this does have a happy end.

I have seen the professional show many times, and always see something new in it every time I do. And I love the film version too. I had up until now however, never seen the so-called School Edition before. This is the edition that has been released for amateur companies (particularly youths) to be able to perform. And hereby hangs my problem. I accept of course that certain things are going to change. Songs will be shortened, made slightly less complicated, lyrics might even change. (all of this does in fact happen). However, if they are allowing this show to be performed by youths (minors according to law) then why did they not cut or at least soften the more obvious things which we try to shield from our children on a regular basis, such as violence, killing, sex, prostitution, stealing, drunkenness and profanities to mention just a few… and instead decide that the Confrontation Scene (one of the best scenes in the whole Musical) should be omitted. Their cuts and changes seemed somewhat arbitrary and lessened my overall experience. However that is not MMY’s fault and it is something over which no amateur company has any control. That being said, though, I am extremely pleased they didn’t soften or cut any of the aforementioned themes since by so doing it would have reduced the storyline and poignancy of the narrative to very diluted cordial, rather than the syrup it was and is.

This means that it needs a great leap of imagination with cast members becoming more mature than their youthful years in order to carry the Musical off to any proficiency. Not an easy task, not for any company. But this is no ordinary amateur company. This is MMY. A company for aspiring Musical theatre performers between the ages of 11 and 19. Their ‘mantra’ at the foot of the programme cover page reads, ‘Igniting Passion, Nurturing Talent, Showcasing Success’. A rather audacious boast perhaps… but it’s certainly one that they have lived up to in the three productions I have seen them perform so far. This is a company that aspires to greatness. It has its sights firmly set on trying to make their shows as professional, as competent, as fully-rounded, and as unique as possible. And to read and listen to all the plaudits that this company receive on a daily basis, not just from family and friends as one would expect, but from other industry professionals unconnected with the company, even managing to impress the Weinberger’s representative present on opening night too; you’d think they had already achieved the recognition they so obviously deserve. But no, they always strive for more.

The one thing with which MMY excels (more than all the other things with which it excels that is) is chorus singing, and last night they did not at all disappoint. I think I am right in saying that a few of the harmonies had been simplified from the pro version, but nevertheless, what a powerhouse of singing talent. Utterly brilliant. At The End Of The Day and One Day More were the two absolute stand-outs. The chorus also had, just as it was originally directed in the French premiere, little back-stories and were all given names. The names of course were never used except to each other… everyone was an individual character with a story of his or her own. Just be aware that once or twice your little vignettes, although only mimed and kept very tight did focus-steal occasionally. As lovely an idea as this is, the audience need to be kept totally focused on the main action, only subliminally aware that there are other characters on stage who have a story to tell too.

If I were to say that all the principals were excellent, I would not be lying. I am not going to waste ink by repeating that every time for every character. But here are some remarks about some which I should like to add over and above the ‘excellent’.

First, I take my attention to a young man called Joshua Kime. If you, young sir, do not end up playing Jean Valjean on the West End stage, then I shall be utterly disappointed! You didn’t just embody the role, you WERE Valjean. Every nuance, every eyebrow movement, every emotion was there, complete. And it wasn’t just your incredible acting skill either. You had a voice to rival the professionals too. Bring Him Home was not originally written so high. I have a cassette recording at home of the original concept album of this Musical – in French – which features Bring Him Home (Comme Un Homme) in a much lower register. It was only arranged that high for the great Colm Wilkinson to sing, and has stayed that way ever since. Your rendition last night took my breath away!

Next under the spotlight is Cameron Hall as Javert. A more real and human interpretation of this role you will not find. Normally played by (or at least in all the shows I have seen) someone rather slender and tall with a gaunt, blank expression; your interpretation differed considerably but was the better for it. Looking more like Valjean’s brother than his enemy, you brought a lovely world-weariness and humane side to this character which is seldom developed. This made it easier to emote with you but harder to accept your dogged tenacity.

I shall write about the three ladies all together. What I say about one applies to all. Rachel Kevern was Fantine; Eve Rowan was Eponine and Lara Hancox was Cosette. Rarely do I find myself using so many superlatives in one review. Rarely does something or someone impress me so much that I run out of compliments. I see so many shows, and am involved with so many more ( as an actor, director, writer etc) that I sometimes think I am immune to spontaneous emotional responses to actors on stage. Last night once again proved me so very wrong. I couldn’t clap after I Dreamed A Dream I was so taken by it; I was crying when Fantine died; On My Own was simply perfect. [how many renditions of this song do I have to listen to where they use elision between 'my' and 'own' to make it sound like On Myeeeown, and I die a little inside every time they do! - of course you didn't! Magical!]; and somehow Hancox managed to not only look like but sound like a young Sarah Brightman too. What a lovely lyrical soprano voice. But it wasn’t just the quality of their singing – they were all three consummate actresses too, giving fully-rounded and heart-wrenchingly believable performances.

Next up is David Beeby. (M. Thenadier). What he didn’t give to his characterisation wasn’t worth giving. A little darker than the usual comedy elicited from this role. Who can ever forget the wonderful Alun Armstrong play it on the West End. Of course he created the role and it has become the definitive performance, and elements of that must naturally be present in all subsequent interpretations, but Beeby gave us as fresh approach to this character as is perhaps possible and once again, the role benefited because of it. Armstrong used a London accent for the character and somehow, that has always stayed. Even when I saw a production of this Musical in Vienna – Thenardier used a broad Viennese dialect and accent. Why has no-one ever picked up on the fact that the musical is set in France?? Anyway – I digress – Beeby’s portrayal was outstanding. He was ably assisted in this role by Nelly Tomlinson as his vituperous and snide wife Mme. Thenadier. Although for me this interpretation fell a little short and became akin to a pantomime dame at times. I really would have preferred her to be much more nasty and really make her comments hit home!

Marius last night was played with conviction and aplomb by a young man by the name of Sam Bate. It’s a very difficult role to gauge since you appear only in the second part of the story, and then you expect the audience to accept you as the protagonist. Bate started his role in the show almost insignificantly and allowed the audience to get to know him bit by bit (as far as the book and music would allow) and for this I take my hat off to him. I have seen many a Marius (Michael Ball included) who, on their first appearance expect the audience to know and understand who they are and follow them on their journey without question. Not Bate. We had to grow to like him and understand him, just as Valjean did. Excellently measured. I have to say that I also had tears in my eyes once again during your haunting rendition of Empty Chairs. [ although bringing the dead on at the back in semi-silhouette was using a spade to pick a bluebell. I really didn't like that ].

Finally I will make a special mention to the young Gavroche. Riccardo Atherton. An engaging and very likeable performance. A young lead-in-the-making!

Musically solid, with superb musical direction by Kimberly Holden; with Dan Jarvis once again taking the helm as director and [we'll forgive you for the obvious plagiarism of certain scenes or tableaux ] with a little help from co-director Ellie Whitfield, reigning over a very tight and well oiled machine made some lovely choices and made good use of a well-designed set. I loved the LX plot by Ellie Whitfield and Alex Carvahlo. Some lovely effects created here. The back light for the silhouettes and sewer, the two side lamps for Javert’s bridge suicide scene etc. Imaginative and stark, aiding the narrative.

And so, I say a massive well done and congratulations to all involved in bringing Les Miserables back to Manchester. Although I had to laugh at the final comment of director Dan Jarvis’s introduction in the programme. If he isn’t aware that this Musical is about the Student Revolt and not the French Revolution then it’s time for him to pack it all in!! ( It’s OK – we forgive you. Am I allowed to use emoticons in reviews?? If so here’s a big smiley face and a LOL ). I am reminded of one of the few exchanges of dialogue I can remember from Boublil and Schoenberg’s first collaboration, La Revolution Francaises, a Musical performed only in France, in which one character (I forget who – perhaps Robespierre) is talking to the King and the exchange goes as follows:

King: C’est une Revolte?
Man: Non sire, c’est une Revolution.

Wishing you many more standing ovations for the rest of the run and I can’t wait until February when you will be performing Legally Blonde. – and if that isn’t going from the sublime to the ridiculous I don’t know what is! Although hopefully there will be some more opportunity for dancing in your next show. The three I have seen so far have had little or no dancing in them at all, and I think perhaps this is an area of Musical Theatre which could be explored and exploited a lot more by your talented company!

Thanks ever so much once again for proving to me that the future of Musical Theatre is safe and in good hands!

Reviewer – Alastair MacDougall
on – 22/7/16

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