King Edward VI School Chelmsford
Not a show for the faint-hearted, Les Mis. The “School Edition” not noticeably less challenging than the full-fat grown-up version.
Director James French, in his first big musical for KEGS, gets 110% from his huge company of urchins, students, convicts, topers, dancers and ladies of the night. The battle of the barricade is stunningly effective, as is the stirring climax to Act One. The choral set-pieces – Turning, At the End of the Day, Look Down – are superbly sung, and the idealistic “schoolboys” are strongly characterized individuals.
The solo voices are excellent, taking the operatic scoring in their stride, led by Joseph Clark's haunted Valjean, Isabelle George's tender Eponine and Joseph Folley's cold, clipped Javert.
Musical Director Tim Worrall keeps everything tightly together, conjuring a satisfying symphonic sound from his prominent pit orchestra.
photographs: Essex Chronicle
Richard Broadway writes for the KEGS Newsletter:
Richard Broadway became the sixth Head Master of KEGS in the year Shakespeare co-founded his Lord Chamberlain's Men. More recently, he has ghost-written appreciations of performances at his old school. This is his last.
Masques in the reign of the Virgin Queen. A Victorian pantomime with songs. Niche shows on the new stage: Smike, Jennings Goes to School, the made-in-house Midas. And more recently the big blockbusters: Oliver!, Joseph, Anything Goes.
This marvellous Les Mis must surely top them all – a huge challenge bravely undertaken and triumphantly met.
House Full notices out, and we make our way into the already crowded hall as, on the extended stage, the convicts are already wearily breaking rocks.
The catwalk encloses the impressive pit band, and is inventively used for many of the scenes, allowing smooth transitions between the big set pieces and the more intimate moments. The powerful end to Act One an outstanding example, with the soloists ranged around in front as the chorus swells on the main stage.
The principal players give confident, engaging performances. And convincing vocal accounts of the challenging Schönberg score.
Not least the youngest actors: Elliot Harding-Smith as a cocky little “top-of-the-class” Gavroche, superbly sung. And what a treat to have such a good voice [Matthew Wadey] for Castle in the Cloud instead of the cute breathiness which has become the norm.
The cast is hugely strong in depth, too, with all the young revolutionaries in the ABC café neatly differentiated, and small roles like the Bishop [Benjamin Russell], or the tipsy Grantaire [Benjamin Kinder], given full weight.
Molly Sun-Wai brings an artless innocence to the tragic Fantine, Charlotte Abbotts as the older Cosette is girlishly charming, an ideal foil for Thomas Mitty's finely nuanced law student revolutionary Marius. Eponine, the first to fall in the uprising, is beautifully sung by Isabella George – her duet with Marius – A Little Fall of Rain – exquisitely done, the trio A Heart Full of Love another musical highlight.
The terrible Thénardiers are given broad-brush characterizations by Benjamin Southern-Thomas, blatantly watering the wine under the nose of his clientèle, and fishwife Hazel Ellender as his frightful missus. Nice to see them resplendently dressed as beggars at the feast.
Harry Clark carries most of the revolutionary fervour as Enjolras, waving the red flag, rallying his doomed troops with style and a strong will.
The legendary role of Jean Valjean is superbly taken by Joseph Clark. Fighting for justice, bearing his guilt, ageing and dying, this is a compelling performance by any standards. His face-off with Javert is an electric moment on front stage. Joseph Folley plays the obsessive Inspector with exemplary precision and panache. A tall, menacing figure, his black-gloved hands firmly behind his back, he draws the eye whenever he appears. Every word is clearly enunciated; his big number – Stars – is given a kneeling climax, a bold move which seems only to accentuate the emotional heft.
Given the inevitable budgetary limitations, the staging is thrillingly effective. On countless occasions, Joseph Thorogood's set design, George Twinn's lighting and James French's groupings form a thrilling fresco – notably at the barricade. The runaway cart – often risibly lightweight – is here, with its load of luggage, a believably weighty burden for Valjean. The scene changes happen seamlessly – the drunkards clear Thénardier's tavern, for instance; the inn – well frequented by underage drinkers – is another great crowd picture, giving opportunities to the colossal chorus; their distant singing behind the final deathbed scene makes another subtle transition.
The twenty-strong pit orchestra – surrounded by the cat-walk fore-stage – produces a stunning sound, generally well balanced with the voices. [Claire Greenwood's oboe heard to touching effect.]
Les Misérables is directed by James French, with the assistance of Elizabeth Hutchinson and Henry Sainsbury; the Musical Director is Tim Worrall, with sound design by Rafee Ahmed.
This huge company, on stage, in the band and behind the scenes, have earned the indelible memories they'll have of this milestone show. And they thoroughly deserve their moment of triumph at the end of Act One, to say nothing of the rapturous roar, the double encore and the standing ovation that greets their last bow. One of the many reasons that the performing arts are so vital in education. As Victor Hugo has it: '“Le beau est aussi utile que l'utile.” Il ajouta après un silence, “Plus, peut-être.”' 'Rien n'est tel que le rêve pour engendrer l'avenir.'