Les Misérables: School Edition

Centrestage Productions Youth Theatre [CPYT]  The Point, Eastleigh Anne Waggott 14 February 2024

Confession time… Les Misérables is one of my all-time favourite shows. I’ve seen countless professional productions or film versions (both musical and non-musical versions); I’ve read the entire novel (it took a while!); I’ve been involved creatively with previous youth productions… It’s safe to say, this is a show I know very well and love enormously.

So it was with considerable mixed emotions of excitement and nervous anticipation that I took my seat on opening night. CPYT have a well-deserved reputation for staging high quality musicals… but would they be able to continue their success and do full justice to Les Misérables?

The answer is a resounding OUI!!!

There is only word to sum up the quality of performances from this young company –magnifique! So much so, that I have no shame in admitting I was a bit of a blubbering mess by the middle of Act One, and emotionally wrung out by the concluding standing ovation. Mike Mullen’s first-class direction of 101 performers (aged 8 – 18 years) has ensured a production of the highest quality, with slick pace, compelling characterisations, and a storytelling throughout which is one of clearest renditions of Victor Hugo’s classic tale I have ever seen.

In the briefest of summaries, Les Misérables follows the life of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict in 19th-century France, over many years: his release from prison, breaking his parole as an act of rebellion, and his life-long quest for redemption, despite being hunted for decades by his nemesis, Inspector Javert, all against a backdrop of social and political injustice, unrest and revolution.

Let’s take a moment to remember that Les Misérables: School Edition is essentially the same show as the professional full-length production, but that the show licence means no amateur performer over the age of 19 years old is legally allowed to perform it. Now consider that Alfie Flynn (Valjean) is currently studying for his GCSEs and Jimmi Donnelly (Javert) is at Sixth Form College… which makes both their performances all the more incredible.

Alfie’s vocal talents are reminiscent of Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, whilst he definitively makes the role his own, and his rendition of ‘Bring Him Home’ left me with tears unashamedly running down my cheeks. Jimmi is totally mesmerizing as the resolute and fanatical lawman Javert, with his version of ‘Stars’ in my humble opinion second only to Norm Lewis’s performance during the 25th Anniversary Concert. Both are outstanding, individually and in a sparring partnership, both full of angst, passion, commitment and compassion, and both commanding the stage with superb spine-shivering stage presence.

There is strong support from the remaining principals. Lily Rochard is equally as compelling as Eponine, embodying the role with every fibre of her performance, an excellent actor with a voice to match, evoking poignant emotions during ‘On My Own’. Jack Fenner is engaging as Marius, whether defiantly supporting the revolting students or enamoured with Cosette from first sight; his performance of ‘The Café Song’ (aka ‘Empty Chairs At Empty Tables’) pulled at my heartstrings once again!

Will Voakes and Emma Hatherell bring the house down with ‘Master Of The House’, with great comic timing and characterisation; Coralie Havard is a fearless and feisty Gavroche, totally convincing, whose onstage death is one of the most emotive I’ve seen (she is alternating the role with James Fagade, who I have no doubt will be just as charismatic when it is his turn to perform); and 15 year old Jacob Schrader gave a mature performance as student leader Enjolras way beyond his years.

Abby Bamber-Brown (Fantine) embodies the lengths a mother will go to protect her daughter, capturing her passion, despair, fury and tigress integrity in ‘I Had A Dream’. Casting Liv Harder as her daughter, the adult Cosette, was inspired – she could easily have been Fantine’s daughter, capturing Cosette’s innocence and innate goodness with sweet vocals (without a trace of saccharine sentimentality, quite the achievement).

The cast have been in music and movement rehearsals since October – and it has paid off in spades. The music is extremely challenging (even for seasoned and experienced voices), and two Musical Directors, Ian Partridge and Rachael Thorpe, have been used to oversee the large cast. This was a wise creative decision, particularly as there is no dialogue in Les Misérables; their skill and passion ensure the ensemble’s diction, harmonising and timing all combine brilliantly to bring the narrative to life, and the principals are literally giving the performances of their young lives.

Although they have had months of rehearsals, the company (and crew) have only had three days to get to grips with the revolving stage and complexities of the hired scenery. This is no mean feat – and each and every one of them should be highly commended for this alone, particularly with such a large ensemble on stage during crowd scenes.

The orchestra, conducted by MD Ian Thorpe with MD Rachael Thorpe on Keyboard 1, are superb; Ashley Mullen’s choreography brings out the best in all the performers; and the hired scenery and costumes, with well timed sound effects and stunning lighting, all combine to make this one of the most memorable shows I have seen to date.

In spite of a few understandable minor technical glitches on opening night (none thankfully involving the barricade or revolve), the quality of performances, combined with the obvious passion and enthusiasm of the cast, leaves me with only one regret. As the show is entirely sold out, I can’t go back and watch it again and again! If you are among the fortunate ones to hold a ticket for the remaining performances, you are in for an incredible and memorable treat. Just remember to take tissues with you – unless you have a heart of stone, you’re going to need them!