As John Weitzel’s programme note regarding taking the whole School to a performance of Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in the West End to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Loughborough Grammar School in March 1995 implied, the logistics might have been insurmountable had it not been for the willing co-operation of everyone involved. Yet, it could be argued, those logistics pale in comparison to the ones needed to bring the show to the School, particularly into the theatrically unfriendly confines of the Hodson Hall in March 2020.
That the outstanding performances achieved by the young cast would have not have disgraced the purpose-built and acoustically friendly spaces afforded by the West End was testimony to their abundant talent and the quality of the direction, musicianship, and technical support provided. The undoubted willing co-operation of everyone involved in enabling such a “big show” to leave indelible memories in the audience and performers alike must have been truly colossal in order to realise with such panache the ambition of creating new memories while reflecting on the shape of ones from a quarter of a century ago. The outcome of that co-operation was staggering.
Given the huge number of young actors involved it would seem invidious to single out individuals, especially in the light of the uniformly high quality of the acting and singing throughout, but the performances of those on whose shoulders the weight of the narrative depended were exceptional and for this reason exceptions must be made.
Freddie as Valjean brought maturity to the role, well beyond his chronological age, and a singing voice to match (Bring Him Home an especial highlight); Olly delivered a Javert who could be loathed but also accorded sympathy (his suicide was particularly effectively and affectingly staged); and, on the performance night about which this review is written, in the roles of Fantine and the grown-up Cosette and Eponine, Emilia, Francesca and Lucy were, all three, superb in both voice and character, eliciting genuine emotional responses from an enraptured audience. As Monsieur Thenardier, Alex was in his element (it is a wonderful part), comically yet repulsively convincing as the grasping and amoral landlord, in which characterisation he was joined by Lulu, equally convincing as his mendacious and mercurially wilful wife, with the pair illuminating an already brightly lit stage at every turn. Ben’s love-struck Marius was completely realised as a young man whose high ideals for his country and his love for Cosette are in conflict; Will’s Enjolras was every bit the ideal-driven young leader for whom the injustices of the state just had to be addressed; and, again on the night under review, Charlie brought Gavroche to life with the swagger and bravado of a genuine street urchin who would not have looked out of place in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! While Sofia as Young Cosette was waiflike and endeared the entire audience to her plight.
None of the above, however, would have been able to sustain their roles with such conviction had not the rest of the cast been so supportive in theirs, however small and seemingly unimportant. The ensemble playing was tremendous with everyone giving due respect to the quality of the show’s libretto and music and to the creative and engaging direction of which they were in receipt. The technical support was jaw-droppingly astonishing (the LED screens and the live action camera work were a revelation); the music was conducted and played in the manner of some of the very best pit orchestras; and the sound, special effects and scene changes were handled with skills which belied the youthfulness of most of those who were practising them. Those who marshalled the vital elements of the production – Sally Bruton (Direction), David Morris (Musical Direction), Pete Viccars (Technical Direction), Stuart Thompson (Conductor), Garry Leeson (Compliance) and Al Waters (Production Management) – should be very proud of their parts in such a tremendously successful venture.
Before the curtain falls on this review, mention must be made also of the ambience of the auditorium, the colours, red and black in harmony with the tumultuous chorus of “The ABC Café/Red and Black” number, and those dazzling chandeliers (they, too, were exceptional), creating a feeling that a truly significant event was about to happen – and so it did.
Ironically, for a celebratory event in which a show about injustice, oppression and poverty was chosen as the centre-piece, it is unlikely that anyone who was in any way involved in its production or who saw it during the 525th anniversary celebrations at Loughborough Grammar School in 2020 would have left the theatre – a deliberate choice of word for the staging was so successful that it was possible to forget that it was taking place in a school hall – with anything other than a sense of joi de vivre engendered by the privilege of being there: miserable it was – most definitely – not.
In accord with that thought, in March 1995, The Times diary quoted the then school bursar, Philip Feather (explaining that the outing to the West End was ‘part of the school’s quincentenary celebrations’): “Les Mis may seem a slightly strange choice of show for a celebration but it’s supposed to be very good.” In The Hodson Hall in March 2020 it was much, much more than “very good” – it was a tour de force.