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  • Stacey Ireson

Theatre Review: "Les Miserables: School Edition" @ Nottingham Arts Theatre

My first thought on hearing there was a “Les Miserables: School Edition” being performed in Nottingham was “Well, that’s a bold choice”.  “Les Miserables” is a notoriously complex musical, which requires outstanding vocal ability as well as some hefty acting skills.  There are adult amateur groups who would baulk at the prospect.  However, after seeing a number of their previous productions, if I had to bet on one Youth Theatre group that could pull this off, it would be the Nottingham Arts Youth Theatre.

"Les Misérables" follows the intertwined lives of several characters in 19th-century France, primarily focusing on Jean Valjean, a former convict who breaks his parole and seeks redemption, and Inspector Javert, who relentlessly pursues him. Against a backdrop of social unrest, Valjean adopts Cosette, daughter of Fantine, a factory worker driven to desperation. As the years pass, their lives intersect with student revolutionaries including Marius and Eponine. The story is one of justice, love, and redemption.  It's not a short story and this won't be a short review, so grab a cuppa and settle in because here we go:

George Young gave a performance beyond his years as Jean Valjean, the centre of the story.  I have had the pleasure of watching George perform a number of times now and he just keeps going from strength to strength.  

His clear, strong voice was showcased wonderfully in Valjean’s songs, particularly the tricky “Bring Him Home”, but it was George’s acting performance that really left me awestruck.  His performance during Fantine’s death scene had a raw authenticity that would not be out of place on a professional stage and I was left emotionally wrecked. (the first time of many during this show!)  I honestly cannot wait to see what George does next, although this is certainly going to be a tough role to top!

Hounding Valjean at every turn was the imposing figure of Inspector Javert, played (again brilliantly) by Jonathan Jaycock.  I really enjoyed the gravitas that Jonathan brought to the role of Javert ,  It would be very easy to turn him into a one note villain, but Jonathan managed to show the nuance in character. This was especially evident during his songs “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide”, which were both expertly performed. 

The stunning performances just kept coming with Chloe Chapman-Deas as the tragic Fantine.  During the rapturous applause Chloe's rendition of the iconic “I Dreamed A Dream”, Freya turned to me and mouthed “WOW”, which basically sums up Chloe’s entire performance.  

We really were spoiled for vocal quality during this show, and Joshua Preston as the love-struck Marius is a perfect example of this.  His rich, expressive voice was perfect for Marius’ romantic ballads and the heartbreaking “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.  I found myself sitting next to Joshua’s singing teacher in the audience - she certainly couldn’t ask for a better testimonial of her teaching techniques!

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Joshua was another fabulous young actor.  His reactions during “A Little Fall of Rain”, the duet with Eponine, were so visceral and heartfelt that it was easy to forget he wasn’t really grieving the loss of a friend.  Another tear-jerking highlight from the show.

Speaking of the ever-unappreciated Eponine, this role was performed confidently by the vocal powerhouse that is Francesca Lewis.  I’ve actually seen Francesca perform previously as Ariel in Footloose, but her characterisation was so different that I nearly didn’t recognise her.

I loved how Francesca could switch between Eponine’s streetwise, sassy side to her more vulnerable, lonely moments as she struggles with her unrequited love for Marius.  Her rendition of “On My Own” (my favourite song from the musical) almost lifted the roof off the theatre, with a vocal belt that could compete with some of the greatest leading ladies of the stage.

Mia Rathbone, with her stunning soprano voice and delightful demeanor, was flawless as Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette.  Cosette’s solos are notoriously difficult to sing and I thought Mia handled them masterfully.  I also really enjoyed her chemistry with Marius and she got to display a real range of emotions throughout the show.

There isn’t a lot of comic relief in “Les Miserables”, but the majority of what there is comes from the dreadfully hilarious (or is that hilariously dreadful?) Thenardiers.  Jamie Adlam has proven himself time and again to be a consummate comedy actor and so he was the perfect choice for the hideous innkeeper and general bad’ un, Monsieur Thernadier. He succeeded in milking every inch of comedy from the script and was a firm audience favourite.

His equally awful wife, Madame Thenardier, was played by the equally fabulous Elizabeth Fitzgerald.  Although Elizabeth was amazing at the brash, over-the-top comedy required for Madame T, I also liked how she infused the character with a real sense of malice and villainy.  

The two Thenardiers together were the perfect combination and easily provided some of the show's greatest highlights.

Tony Foad portrayed Enjolras, the leader of the student revolution.  I’ll be honest, this isn’t normally role I particularly notice, but Tony’s version really captured my attention.  Another strong vocal performer, Enjolras arguably has to lead one of the most recognised numbers in the show "Do you hear the People Sing?", as well as being the driving force behind the revolution.

Poppy’s personal favourite character was the street urchin, Gavroche, played by Seth Burgess.  I absolutely loved Seth’s performance.  He perfectly captured Gavroche’s cheeky, energetic spirit and was a joy to watch.

Lizzie Kenny gave an adorable performance as Little Cosette with a soulful rendition of “Castle on a Cloud”.  She is extremely talented and confident for one so young, and clearly a very promising actress.  I can’t wait to see what she does in the future.

While each of the individual cast members were remarkable and worthy of copious praise, the same could be said of the ensemble as a whole. I have seldom seen a cast where every single person on the stage was performing with complete commitment and dedication - there was not a single weak link to be found.   

With musical direction from Gareth Wynne and Jonah Williams, I was particularly impressed with the fabulous, full sound that the ensemble produced throughout the major musical numbers.  As one audience member commented “if you closed your eyes, you would never guess the cast was made up of school-age children”  

I also did not enter the theatre expecting to hear a live 14-piece orchestra (Conducted also by Gareth Wynne) so that came as a tremendously nice surprise and really put the cherry on top of this musical extravangza.

“Les Miserables” was Abby Well’s first foray into directing but I certainly don’t think it will be the last.  This was incredibly smooth production, with clear vision and direction and Abby had clearly worked hard to encourage the cast to give their best possible performances.

I bumped into Abby during the interval and it was easy to see how tremendously proud she was of the hard work from everyone involved.  With production management from Jessica Royce, along with assistance from Emily-Hope Wilkins,   I think the whole production team should be giving themselves a standing ovation for how well the show came together.

There had clearly been a lot of though put into how the show would look and feel.  With the help of some atmospheric lighting  and sound from Oliver Read and Rob Ketteridge and effective set design from Abby Wells and Mark Russell, all elements blended together to create an immersive and exciting experience for the audience.

Nottingham Arts Youth Theatre’s production of “Les Miserables” has been the theatrical highlight of my year so far (and I recently saw the UK tour of Wicked at the Bristol Hippodrome, so there was some stiff competition.)

When reviewing amateur theatre, it is occasionally a delicate balance between being encouraging and being honest.  With this particular show, I’m not convinced I could find a negative comment or area improvement if held at gunpoint!  

I’m delighted to hear that the remaining shows are completely sold out, so this fabulous cast and crew are getting the audience and recognition that they deserve.   I’m already looking forward to their next production, which I believe is “Everybody’s Talking about Jamie” in 2025.  Although with the sheer perfection of “Les Miserables”, they’ve certainly given themselves a tough act to follow.



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