Les Miserables: School Edition

Date 29th October 2015
Society Devizes Musical Theatre
Venue St Mary's Church, Devizes
Type of Production Musical
Director Lucy Kibby / Simon Hoy
Musical Director Naomi Ibbetson

Report

Author: Matthew Heaton

Les Miserables is a musical that really needs no introduction. Alain Boublill and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical take on Victor Hugo’s classic novel is one of the best-loved and most familiar musicals of the modern age (so no pressure then!). To perform the School Edition, it does need to be performed entirely by students (aged 19 and under), but it doesn’t hold back on the original storyline for a younger cast. This does present a challenge in terms of some of the show’s content. It is a shorter production (some 23 minutes I have been told) but this is through removing some verses of songs rather than whole scenes. Thus the challenge is the same as for the full production, in terms of staging, performance and expectation.

I do know the show pretty well as I directed it myself a few years ago. This is useful because it gets me some insights into the issues and challenges with this show. To negate any preconceptions that I also may have and to get a younger person’s view on a youth production, I did bring my son of 13 years old to help contribute to the report.

As a result, I know it is quite an undertaking to put this show on at all. It is very challenging musically and is ‘opera-like’, as the whole show is sung. The score is also pretty relentless and has to be done at pace, which makes staging the show all the more challenging. On top of this, DMT Footlights have done this in a venue, a church, not really designed for theatre. They have had to bring in their own staging, sound and lighting. There is no pit or defined location for an orchestra, no wings to the stage and then no real facilities for looking after cast and audience. So, as an opening remark, very well done in overcoming all of these issues and putting on a great production.

If we start with the staging, the main acting area was a raised platform at the front of the church, vital with an audience all at floor level to enable them to see. As well as being a raised platform, the central section of this stage also revolved (quite a surprise as this effect wasn’t presented immediately), which was a really impressive achievement and it worked really well. This was vital as there is no scene change music as the production flows completely from scene to scene, so the next scene often has to set in parallel to the current one, without disturbing it. In fact, you probably could have made more use of the revolving stage – it was only used once for ‘walking’ in ‘Master of the House’ and would have helped the effect of the opening scene further for example. However, there may well have been a technical reason for this – it must have been quite a feat to get it moving!

With no wings, the stage entrances mainly used were two points of rear entry for the cast as well as the set. This did seem awkward at times when there were queues of people trying to get off after big scenes and the audience could sometimes see people waiting to come on at some scene changes (particularly when the bed was removed).  A side aisle entry point was also used quite effectively, which seemed to have access to backstage, as was the back of the Church. I don’t know if these could have been used more to address some of the other issues. The cross-pew area of the floor was also used during ‘Turning’.  I certainly felt part of this as my seat was under one corner of the sheet!

The balcony above the back of the stage was great. It worked well at the start of the show during the Chain Gang scene, allowing Javert to stand imposing above the convicts. It also worked well in ‘One Day More’ and in the Wedding Scene. It was pretty evident would be used as the Bridge for Javert’s suicide, though it probably needed the lighting to be cut to make his fall completely effective. Perhaps more could be made of steps at front to make a different level for some scenes.  On occasion, I feel there was the need for some more set dressing. ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ probably needed a few more to support the song’s meaning and the Garden Scenes needed something to show who was outside and inside of the garden.  The barricade worked very well, particularly when it was rotated. Its entrance and exit could have been masked a little with the student’s preparations before and Valjean carrying Marius afterwards.

The principal performances in the production were very strong. For child protection requirements I am unable to list names, so I’ve just used initials. It was a lovely idea to double up some of the principal roles so some performed on different nights.