Thursday, April 12, 2007

Les Miserables, Pimlico Opera, Wandsworth Prison

Not long ago there was an Indian girl called Wasfi Kani. She was a conductor who ran a chamber opera company called Pimlico. A compassionate person and a super-competent organiser she had the idea of taking opera to prisons and her visit was to Wormwood Scrubs where Pimlico performed Figaro and Walton's The Bear. The next year, 1991, she took the idea further, incorporating the prisoners in the performance of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd but including a few professionals in the leading parts. This took place in the Scrubs wing where all the inmates are lifers (i.e. in for murder). I took a tape recorder to the dress rehearsal and interviewed some of the cast - more of that by and by.

The following year it was Guys and Dolls in Wandsworth, West Side Story, in 1996 Dublin and Oxford. Performances followed in Downview, Surrey, Winchester, the Scrubs again and Ashwell in Leicestershire. In 2006 it was Chicago in a women's HMP in Bronzefield, near Heathrow and it was brilliant. By now Wasfi was more of a producer in the film sense that she did the paperwork and proved to bet a wizard at getting dosh from sponsors and donors, thus able to provide quite lavish decor and costumes, and to hire bands. Even more important perhaps than the artistic results was the result in human terms, giving the prisoners responsibility for learning words and music (very few of them could read music) and taking part in a company event. Most of them had never been in a theatre so that performing was a new, absorbing and therapeutic gift. What is also touching is that the printed programmes contain testimonies to the inmates's life, expertise and what it means to them to take part.

The audience has to arrive early for security reasons, sometimes having to dye thumbs and wear identity bracelets. Present are sponsors, guarantors, relatives and friends of the inmates. The venue is usually a large warehouse-type space with no windows.

The music, Les Mis was composed by Schoenberg - no, not Arnold but Claude-Michel, the other Schoenberg, the text is based on Victor Hugo (hélas!), it has not come my way before now and I must confessIwas underwhelmed. The narrative seems to me unconvincing, characters do not develop. The music plods along four-in-a-bar almost throughout and, though charming at first, soon palled, there being too much of typical American musical manufactured lyrical climaxes (as in Sondheim and not, definitely not, as in Bernstein's superior West Side Story).Choruses were lustily sung and the band, under John Beswick, was quite satisfactory.

Now last year's Chicago was a fizzing show but Les Mis I found disappointing, not inventive and not inspiring the amateurs in the cast to rise to a show of professionalism. Was Michael Moody, director since the beginning in 1991. having a fallow year? Wandsworth being a male establishment, girls were brought in for the show but all but two (Cosette and a tall girl with comedy and good projection) were feeble and their voices (and some of the men) badly needed the mikes they didn't have. Excellent were the professionals Elliot Goldie (Javert) and Blake Pischer (Valjean). Costumes conventional to the point of banality.

To return to my 1990 visit to the Scrubs. I took a tape recorder and, after interviewing Wasfi and various other principals I talked to a chorus member. For the first time in my broadcasting career, I made the mistake of getting off my subject by asking him: "What is the worst thing about being banged up for life?" "No visitors". "What, no nice girl friend to come and see you ?" "Well, I killed her. didn't I ?".

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