I'm one of those incredibly annoying people that can recite every word and harmony to the score that has remained the jewell of London's West End for almost thirty two years since its opening in 1985. It is the work that I personally credit for sparking my own interest in theatre on the whole as it was one of the first shows that I took part in and probably the first show I ever truly loved.
I'm not alone in this. It's a classic.
As I mentioned in my previous post 'A Barricade for Batley; 'You'll Never Walk Alone', it was also the favourite of Jo cox, as she had seen it several times in the West End and enjoyed listening to the soundtrack with her family. It's not difficult to understand why. The powerful music and story of the legendary musical is centred around revolution and the power of the people, Jo's passion for community and unity have a strong resonance with these concepts.
So when Nick Evans, west end theatre director, was approached by MP for Swansea east, Carolyn Harris to consider doing something involved with theatre to celebrate Jo's life and values he was honoured and clear on the three vital aspects of what the project had to achieve:
1.That it should be 'about young people- developing their potential and abilities'
2. That 'the subject matter and theme should be something linked to Jo's sense of possibility, passion and 'standing up for what you believe in'.'
3. 'Perhaps most importantly, that Jo's love of Batley and Spen, West Yorkshire and the communities therein should be reflected in the project.'
So it seemed Boubil and Schönberg's Les Miserables, was a perfect fit.
And so the West End came to Batley and Spen with the intention of creating something truly special to honour the life and values of the much loved local MP. After months of planning and organising at the hand of Nick, Jo’s successor and actress Tracy Brabin and the formidable Donna Munday, who Nick credits personally for being the workforce without whom, this project simply would not have come together, the remarkable team held auditions in the constituency to find the talent to bring the show to life. Perhaps what made this project truly special however is the breadth of roles on offer for the young people. Applications were taken not only for young actors, singers and dancers of age thirteen to nineteen but also for production students interested in costume, props and set design, lighting and sound technicians and stage managers of the same age as like Nick had said early on; ‘It was central that young people be at the heart of everything that was done,’ thus including a team of production students to learn from and be on hand for the professional team working on the project. The team were so wonderful I didn’t want to miss out anyone so I have photographed the programme below and want to declare my absolute respect for each and every person listed. They are all AMAZING.
However one of the most mind blowing aspects of the project for me was in fact the theatre itself, not only because of the staging. It was the first time in the world, Les Miserables had ever been performed in traverse. The Oxfam Wastesaver facility at the heart of Batley was donated and transformed in to the spectacular ‘Jo Cox Theatre’. Myself and the other young people were blown away on first look at the beautifully transformed space which would soon spring to life with the injection of both west end set and costumes from professional productions of the show from across the nation and even the world, the latter being donated by Cameron Mackintosh himself. Some of the gems which excited the cast the most being the impressive flag that decorated the entrance, actually used in the Les Mis film, Ramin Karimloo’s ‘Enjolras’ waistcoat and even myself I discovered my shoes I had been given for the wedding actually had Zoe Doano’s name on the label, a famous west end alumni who played Cosette, all very exciting.
But what perhaps strikes me most is the significance of the space itself. Jo herself worked for Oxfam early on in her career but she also visited the site as their MP, a charity doing fantastic work throughout the world fighting against poverty welcomed the charity and company created for this project, ‘The Batley and Spen Youth Theatre Company’ and accommodated us for this giant task as they saw it as a ‘great opportunity to bring together the local community to celebrate all Jo Stood for’. This is also true for the More in Common Project that the same cast and creatives, led by Viv Buckley devised and performed on the Saturday afternoon of show week, but more on that in my next post.
And I think that is what summed it up for me. We created something so very special in my home county of Yorkshire that has probably never been seen in quite the same way before. The whole community came together and made it happen, without any of whom, it just would not have been possible.
I, along with many others in the cast, am aspiring to have a career in this industry so I felt blessed and lucky each day to have such remarkable expertise around me and tried to take on as much as I possibly could. As I have done Les Mis several times now, I thought it was really special to see how a desire to pursue a career in the arts or simply just a love for theatre was awoken in some of the other students, just as mine had been when I first did the show almost three years ago now. But as Nick said in one of his many inspiring speeches; this doesn’t happen very often for people in Yorkshire, most predominantly West Yorkshire. There just aren’t the opportunities here that kids have in London. Tracy Brabin herself, recently has co-chaired a commission looking into working class opportunities in film, theatre and television- and the barriers in our way and says ‘It shouldn’t matter where you come from or how much your parents earn, every single one of us should be able to follow our dreams and fulfil our potential.’ The legacy of the company being created in Jo’s honour is testament to that.
I am so proud of where I come from, from where Jo came from. But like so many of the wonderful people I had the honour and privilege of working with on this project who came from all over the country, predominately Wales it seems with Nick, Viv and Julie all gloriously Welsh, having a sense of community isn’t necessarily just about where you come from. Each and every person that worked hard to make the project happen was a true Yorkshireman/woman, honory or otherwise.
Because no matter where you come from or what you believe in, as Jo famously said in her maiden speech;
’We are far more united and have far MORE IN COMMON than that which divides us.’
We all created something very special together and it just goes to show what beautiful things can come out of immense tragedy and that there is far more good in this world than bad.
I'll be posting a blog post specifically about the 'More in Common' Project very shortly and many of the creatives will be involved in my new series on 'Women in theatre and Politics' coming soon so stay posted! x