I HAVE been looking forward to this production since early this year, when news reached me that a local school with an outstanding musical pedigree was planning to stage the schools edition of my favourite musical. I have seen half a dozen or so productions of this version, including in my home town of Gillingham, and most recently at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, the Welsh language schools edition, and I believe that, mainly because of the availability of large numbers of people, this version has a more powerful connection and resonance with the audience, as we are given a more accurate portrayal of the story, and seeing the tale of young students fighting for their rights in Paris is made all the more poignant when played by actual students.
I was delighted to find that the entire orchestra for this show was also made up of students – some leeway is given to schools, allowing teachers and slightly older musicians to help out, but tonight’s band were all of school age, under the direction of Hilary Wynne Murphy, and there were some lovely individual solos, particularly some underscoring by solo saxophone, and some great brass work too. This is a difficult score to play, and the band were as accomplished as any I have seen before.
The large cast on stage showed from the very beginning to the beautifully harmonious end what their school is so well known for – such accurate and controlled singing, and the whole production was concentrated on showcasing the melodies and harmonies of Claude-Michel Schonberg. Some numbers seemed to be taken very slowly, and this may have been first-night nerves but for some songs it highlighted the harmony, and also showed great talent from the young performers. The female chorus in particular was angelic in Turning, always a gentle, soft contrast to the earlier Lovely Ladies with exactly the same tune turned from solicitation to mourning.
All the principals were good, and mostly excellent. Jean Valjean, played by Finn Lacey, is on stage for most of the show, and was sung very well, and played with great honesty. Dillon Whitehead, as his nemesis Inspector Javert, had a lovely voice, and it is a shame that the schools edition only lets us hear the second verse of Stars, as I would have loved to have heard Dillon sing the whole song. Fantine only appears for a short while, but Lottie Walker gave a deep and moving I Dreamed a Dream, and great harmonies in the final scene. Eponine and Marius, played respectively by Bella Walker and Osian Jones had two of the most beautiful voices in the show, and it was Osian with Empty Chairs at Empty Tables who made the most hairs stand up on the back of my neck, as he exuded complete grief and guilt at his survival amongst the carnage of the barricades. Cosette is sometimes a difficult role, as she is a bit prim and proper, but Orlaith Duddy carried the part well, particularly in duet with Marius. Edgar Francis and Georgia Cadoret were a suitably comical, brash and rude couple of Thenardiers, Charles Secombe’s Enjolras led the students believably, with another great voice, and both young Gavroche and Cosette, Stanley Talman and Hettie Christensen, were as sweet and appealing as expected. Amongst all the excellent supporting roles I must also mention the wonderful voice of Gregory Kenrick Steward as the Bishop.
This was a spectacular show, very well done, and I am delighted that it is virtually sold out for the rest of the week, as it thoroughly deserved the ticket sales, the cheers of adulation, and the long standing ovation that it recieved at the end of this evening. Bravo Wells Cathedral School, and, dare I ask, “Encore, s’il vous plais”?