Amateur theatre has so much to offer and a current production in South Australia is a prime example of what hard work, intelligent staging and talent can do. The production of Les Misérables in the regional area of Victor Harbor in South Australia leaves audiences with that lovely satisfied feeling that their local theatre group has taken a play as beautiful and challenging as this, worked with it for months with respect and love, and presented a triumph, the memory of which will stay with them for a long time.
Before launching into the review itself, a plea for amateur groups such as this for help with the venues they have to use, The Victor Harbor Town Hall is an example of the unsuitability of an old building in poor condition with challenges and restrictions for those who would make theatre a facet of the lives of people, often elderly, who live a long drive from cities. Poor facilities make their work so much harder and, believe me, verbal warnings from front of house staff about uneven flooring were necessary for some of the audience. When money for infrastructure for a country town is available there are many valid claims for it but too often the arts miss out. This is a plea for a recognition of the immensely hard work that goes into the performance arts and evidence of how well it is appreciated is there for all to see by the packed auditorium. If anyone with money to donate to the arts, government or otherwise, please go to see this show. It will make you feel very good about the idea.
Les Misérables was presented as a musical in 1980 in Paris and hit London in 1985, written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. It held the record at its closing at the Palace Theatre there for the second longest running show in theatrical history. It has won numerous prestigious awards and at one time had 15 professional productions going at the same time in the world. It has been translated into 21 different languages from the original French. So this show is no mean feat for a small amateur group to take on. The music is more than melodic and beautiful in many cases (such as the tender “Bring him home”) It is always appropriate and moves the story on. It is particularly clever in that sometimes tunes are intertwined with each other, making a lovely harmonic sound. Every singer in this show has a very good voice and the songs are delivered with clarity, understanding and feeling. In the care of the Musical Director and his assistant and the vocal director, the solo and ensemble work is a delight.
It is, of course, a re-telling of Victor Hugo’s book written in 1862, considered one of the best novels of all time and certainly a long one, the 19th longest novel ever written. That’s because Hugo often digresses from the story, set in 19th century France, so it was whittled down to the basic very interesting and moving story of Jean Valjean, a peasant who is sent to join a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed to his sister’s starving children. With additional time for trying to escape, he serves nineteen years in harsh penal servitude.
At the beginning of the play, in Toulon in 1815, Valjean (Jon Gear) has just been released. Outside, the air is tense with unemployed people and factory workers protesting about their lot with the angry, rousing opening song “At the end of the day.” It’s a song without hope, saying nothing they can do can alter things. At the end of the day, nothing changes. Javert (Guy Mansbridge) a senior prison officer, farewells Valjean. “Now prisoner 24601, your time is up and your parole’s begun. You know what that means?” “Yes, it means I’m free!” Valjean replies. Not so. He is a bitter, angry, hating man made worse by the rejection he meets everywhere he goes. He intends to follow a path of self preservation whatever he has to do to achieve it and steals church silver from the Bishop of Digne (Wayne Good), the only man to show him kindness, saying “the old fool trusted me.” Caught and doomed, he is astonished when the priest assures Valjean’s captors that the silver was a gift. Shamed by feelings of guilt, “like a knife”, his determination from then on to survive is motivated with a desire to change his life for the better and to help the oppressed as much as he can. In doing so, he tears up his yellow ticket, his ticket-of leave, which he is bound to carry at all times to show people he’s an ex-convict. He is supposed to report in every month but he doesn’t. Thus the law demands that he be re-arrested and that sets Javert, on a relentless quest to track him wherever he might try to hide, to bring him down. They meet, but Javert fails to recognise him and says that Jean Valjean has been caught and will be sentenced the next day in court. Valjean is in torment and sings the powerful song. “Who am I?” Something happens that alerts Javert as to who he really might be.
Years pass and Valjean prospers, owning a factory and becoming Mayor of the town, Monereuil-Sur-Mer. Unbeknown to him, one of his employees, Fantine, rejects the sexual advances of the overseer and is sacked. Fantine (Jordy Irvine-Creaser) sings the lovely song, “I dreamed a dream” – a dream shattered long ago when “he slept a summer by my side, but he was gone when autumn came”. She is frantic for money because, deserted by her illegitimate child’s father, she pays an inn keeper and his wife, the Thenardiers, who are meant to care for her little daughter, Cosette, but use her as a drudge while their own daughter, Eponine is indulged. These roles are interchanged between Alexis Bruce and Jasmine Walter. In this performance Alexis was Cosette. In desperation, Fantine turns to prostitution. A group of them sing the satirical song, “Lovely ladies” and Fantine wonders why anyone would want to have sex with “one already dead.” When Valjean finds out what happened, he promises the dying mother that he will find and care for the child. We meet Cosette as she wistfully sings the sad song, “Castle on a cloud.”
As a corollary to his story, the musical follows a group of students, led by Enjoiras (Andrew Smith) who are determined to help the miserable, hungry and desperate poor who struggle to live each day, by taking on the uncaring and cruel authorities and to make changes for the better. One of those is Marius (Joseph Giblin) who, having glimpsed and been smitten by Cosette, now grown up (Kiera Turner) he finds out where she lives and successfully seeks her out. She falls for him and so the two parts of the story join at this point and the plot, already a good one, thickens. The students are building a barricade. “Let them come if they dare – we’ll be there.” In their midst supporting and watching out is grown up Eponine (Natalie Harding) in love with Marius. And there’s Gavroche (Joel Pathuis). What a bright lad he is, with a good, well projected voice and full of expectations and energy.
The cast individually and collectively are to be congratulated for understanding and portraying their characters so well. Jon Grear who carries the main role of Jean Valjean has a good voice and presents him as a believable man, who changes and grows as the play progresses. It is a huge role and Jon is doing it justice. Javert is a driven man possessed by an unshakeable belief in the justice of the law and in his role in making sure he protects it. He may be seen as the villain but it is to Guy Mansbridge’s credit that he makes the man consistent and true to his calling so that he is believable and convincing. As Marius, Joseph sings “Empty chairs at empty tables” particularly well and Eponine’s lovely song “On my own” is a triumph for Natalie. Jordy’s Fantine evokes sympathy for this suffering woman whose gentle and loving nature makes life unbearable for her. There’s not much to laugh at in this show – its subject doesn’t lend itself to mirth – but there are some comic interludes very competently handled by Monsieur Thenardier (Oliver Reschke), and his wife (Billie Turner) who play the money-grubbing, thieving, ugly, coarse and dreadful rip-off merchants, the innkeeper and his wife. They are not ashamed of their gross behaviour; in fact very proud of it. In reality, the couple who play these awful people, are very young and they are to be highly commended for the way they have tackled these big roles. “Master of the house” brings the house down.
The individuals and the groups of workers, beggars, gangsters and students who support them are all under the direction of JJ Gellen. He has shown initiative and innovation to deal with the difficulties of the venue, he has melded the cast into a wonderfully vibrant and energetic group showing how very talented and capable they are. In the programme he thanks the capable orchestra under Musical Director Derek Walter, Sarah Bicknell and Deana Constable. The multi-levelled stage was built by Stage Manager, John Williams and Allan Theisinger and make up and hair, transforming convicts to beggars to “lovely ladies” etc., is the work of Emily Grear and Marlene Meinecke. 250 costumes were made for this show under the direction of Merelyn Young, sound and lighting which subtly changes scenes without changing the set is the care of Greg Rossiter who had the added challenge of having the orchestra on stage. Friendly Front-of-house Manager, Helen Williams and her team welcomed the audience and Bill Lowe has done myriad jobs as Business Manager. There are many people who support the visible characters on stage, without whom the show simply wouldn’t happen and South Coast Choral and Arts Society has a host of good helpers listed in their informative programme.
This is an emotional play with not too many dry eyes at times, but if a play and its performers can move you, make you laugh, make you cry, make you think, then a good job has been done because no-one can resist a good story, very well told in every aspect – as indeed this show achieves most successfully and effectively. Long live amateur theatre and many congratulations to the South Coast Choral and Arts Society for putting on such a very good show.
The South Coast Choral and Arts Society presents
by Boublil and Schönberg
Director JJ Geelen
Venue: Victor Harbor Town Hall | 10-12 Coral Street, Victor Harbor SA
Dates: 11 – 26 May 2018
Tickets: $16 – $66