Les Misérables (School Edition)

To stage Les Misérables is a massive undertaking for any theatre company, but Director Ben Jeffreys has consummately risen to the challenge with a production of the School’s Edition at Westcliff High School for Boys. This production is more than worthy of anything students at a musical theatre school might produce. Shivers ran not just down my spine but through my body for almost the whole of Act One along with tear-jerking moments that followed through into Act Two.

This production is more than worthy of anything students at a musical theatre school might produce

As with most shows the end product is the culmination of extraordinary teamwork, and more so in a school production, where everyone is putting on the show in addition to full-time study, teaching or other jobs. Drama is not on the formal curriculum, but Jeffreys, who is Head of History, has run an after-school drama club for the last eight years. He puts on at least three shows a year, amassing a total of twenty-five since he started in 2016. That is a tribute to the energy and drive that combines with his passionate belief in the importance of drama in giving young people opportunities and skills.

He has a cast of thirty-eight to manage and, watching from the balcony, it was easy to appreciate his directorial creativity, theatrical imagination and choreographic eye from the outset; the convicts, normally a chain gang of labourers, are instead twenty-four rowers in the galley of a French naval vessel with a series of motifs made into a grand opening number with an impressive “wow” factor.

Once on stage, the backbone of any musical is the orchestra. Musical Director Mr Wood, an Old Boy of the School, conducts an accomplished band of sixteen, mostly students, with some adults who have connections to the school, in a manner that ensures the pace of the show never falters.

The performance takes place in the School Hall, which has an adequate stage that has been extended by the guys at 1159 Productions, but affords little space behind the flats and no wing space. The challenge this presents is made all the greater given the number of beautifully crafted sets that are wheeled on and off, courtesy of Spotlight Productions, who also excel with the costumes and props. Mr G. Marlow handles the construction of the barricades elegantly, whilst Sound by Jamie Mather and Lighting by PikeLights completes the staging.

Jeffreys is blessed with a remarkably talented group of twenty-three students who take on the named parts. Edmund Griffiths (Bishop of Digne) sets the standard high in a lyrical and sensitive rendition of his prologue song following the theft of the silver. Jacob Guyler, in what turns out to be a commanding performance, then breaks into Jean Valjean’s What Have I Done?, an emotionally charged opening number in which he captures the convict’s bitterness about the past and anger at his current predicament, together with his resolve that Another Story Must Begin! Indeed it does, but perhaps not the one he has in mind. Guyler goes on to vividly portray Valjean's angst in the midst of a moral dilemma (Who Am I?), but still finds time to help Fauchelevant (Peter Nimalan) when threatened by Javert.

The big chorus number, At The End Of The Day, exposes the plight of the poor, epitomised by Factory Girl Five (Isla Rodel), and the power of those in charge in through The Foreman (Jacob Mellor), Fantine (Mia Cater) emerges and her story of an abandoned single mother turned prostitute is revealed. Then the music tones down and we await with baited breath for the Susan Boyle moment as Cater, in melancholy reflection, looks back on what might have been with I Dreamed A Dream; and, as they say on The X Factor, “She nailed it” and the tissues came out.

Now, the story becomes increasingly complex with plots, subplots and the passage of time, all interwoven with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s signature style of repeated musical motifs and the many famous songs.

The reality of life in the docks returns with misogynistic avengeance in Lovely Ladies, with the likes of Old Crone (Freddie Cathan) and Bamatabois (Ronnie Hardy) and the chorus. Inspector Javert reappears after his brief introduction in the Prologue, determined to see Valjean re-arrested. Rafael Gamma gives a well-crafted, darkly menacing, sinister and vengeful portrayal of this sad man, though he manages to come over as a much smoother individual, if still full of malice, in Stars. Lighter melodies follow from Cater and Guyler as Fantine lies on her death bed (Come To Me) and Young Cosette (Sophie Cleave) follows with a sweet rendition of Castle On A Cloud, that is interrupted by interjections from her keeper, Madame Thenardier, whose aggressive and rather unpleasant nature is captured effectively by Edith Jefferson.

Light relief comes from her husband. It’s strange that a murderous, money-grabbing informant has such a comically entertaining scene but Gabriel Williams in full song and dance routine mode proves highly amusing as the innkeeper in Master of the House and the master of faux sorrow in the Thenardier Waltz. Meanwhile, Sam Skeels seizes the opportunity for a fine piece of characterisation as Gavroche, the son whom they threw out. He grew up as a street urchin whereas Harley Cleave as Young Eponine, has the joy of being their spolied daughter who learns the tricks of the family.

The revolutionary period now comes to the fore as the scene moves to the ABC cafe where conspirators of various backgrounds meet. Further interesting individuals emerge with the actors creating well defined characters for each: Sebastian Puddick (Combeferre), Oliver Street (Feuilly) Joseph Galvin (Enjolras) Alexander Miller (Joly), Noah Bettis (Grantaire), Conor Lynch-Wyatt (Marius) and William Holley (Prouvaire). The culmination of their revolutionary planning comes with the stirring Do You Hear The People Sing?.

Alice Morgan, as the grown-up Cosette continues the show with a suitably lugubrious rendition of In My Life as she is joined by, Valjean, the papa she never had, Marius, who expresses his love for her and Éponine (Emma Clarke). Clarke carefully balances the multifaceted aspects of Eponine’s character of the girl who was as nasty as her parents, the Thenardiers. She is in love with Maruis, and jealous of Cosette. Their intertwined relationships are brought out in s a delightful rendition of the trio A Heart Full of Love. Several characters continue the plotting in Plumet Attack which leads into the fabulously grand Act-One-closing chorus number, One Day More.

Clarke opens up the second half with Eponine’s impassioned On My Own and not long after Guyler tearfully delivers a deeply moving Bring Him Home. Meanwhile Javert is battling with his conscious and inability to live with the events of his life. Gamma mentally wrestles his way through the man’s tragic demise before committing suicide. Marius and Cosette have a joyous wedding before we move forward to Valjean's natural death and Guyler’s peaceful song of farewell.

No show would be complete without a rousing ending including some short reprises and Les Mis is no exception. All that remained was for us all to rise and give this production a very well deserved standing ovation.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

The original story of Les Misérables came from the pen of French great Victor Hugo, as a written work. The overarching story, set at a succession of revolutions in France throughout the 19th century, was that of former prisoner Jean Valjean, who is pursued for decades by his policeman nemesis, Javert. Les Misérables is an enormously popular musical show that has been seen by more than 120 million people worldwide, in 52 countries and in 22 languages. The first production ran on until July 2019, playing more than 13,000 performances. There have been concert versions in 1995 and 2010, and a film version was made in 2012. Its musical numbers have become legendary, such as Stars and On My Own, and who can forget Susan Boyle’s tear-jerking audition performance of I Dreamed A Dream? And now it is our turn! We look forward to seeing you at the WHSB production in March and hope we can do justice to this fine and much-loved West End classic.

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