March 12, 2012

Les Miserables, HMP Erlestoke, Pimlico Opera

Les Mis

5 stars

(Image: right) Cast members meet Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, on her visit to the show

It seems that Pimlico Opera’s productions are truly going from strength to strength. 2012’s project is a production of Les Miserables in HMP Erlestoke, a Category C prison, housing just under 500 convicted male adult prisoners. Once again, this production was conceived by Wasfi Kani, and falls under the expert direction of Michael Moody and musical direction of Toby Purser. It’s a shining example of true integration between the professional and prisoner casts.

This is partly a feature of Moody’s brilliant vision, but also owes itself to the (mostly previously untapped) natural talent of so many of the inmate performers. Most notable perhaps is MARIUS, who describes himself in the programme as “a cheeky chap from Peckham”, and has a beautifully pure singing voice, and an earnest, intense stage presence, which makes him ideal for the role. His voice blends perfectly with COSETTE’s in their duets, and he has such a confident grasp of the often challenging music that you marvel at the fact that he is not a professional.

Also worthy of a special mention in the principal roles is RAM-trained Anthony Flaum as JEAN VALJEAN, who in many ways seems born to play this part despite his young years; Grange Park regular Caryl Hughes as a sweetly voiced and poised Cosette; and THERNARDIER, the seedy innkeeper who, in this version, is a dry East Ender on the fiddle, bedecked in gold chains and a gaudy leopard-print coat by the end. His cool rendering of ‘Master of the House’, which at the end evolves into the Maccerena, leaves the audience shouting for more. THERNARDIER, incidentally, claims to have signed up to the project on the understanding that he was to be a stage hand, and had never before seen or heard an opera.

But to single out principals doesn’t do justice to the spirit of this production where talent and commitment run right through the ranks, in keeping with the message of the show. Moody has clearly got to know his company thoroughly because he has cast exceptionally to their strengths. GAVROCHE, for instance, is excellent, making up for his small stature in heaps of attitude and charm; ENJOLRAS is stirring as the motivated leader of the revolution; and there are some stunning vocals from two very talented signers, LEON and GRANTAIRE, in ‘Drink With Me’ – here ingeniously re-imagined as a campfire song and hauntingly accompanied by a guitar, making it one of the highlights of the night.

They say a show is as good as its weakest chorus member, and the chorus here are difficult to fault. Ensemble numbers are tightly choreographed and executed, the singing is impassioned, and individual characters are given a prominence and distinctive identity, which can so often be missed in professional productions, which tend to present the chorus simply as a depersonalised ‘mob’. From the chapel to the brothel to the barricades, you watch relationships and events unfold on so many levels, and you witness new characters and new talent rise to the surface at different points in this committed and versatile ensemble.

The quality of the on-stage performances is enhanced further by a great band, a dramatic and sombre set with a bridge that’s used to great dramatic effect, and some striking stage effects, including swivelling lights, which, at the end, rotate from focusing on the cast to illuminating the audience. It seems to represent the importance of the audience and supporters of Pimlico Opera, which is entirely funded by individuals and charities, receiving no government funding. One cast member comments about his involvement in the show: “I am really enjoying it. Now I feel a different person and very normal.” It’s our responsibility to ensure this opportunity is given to more people in his position over the coming years.

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