Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 18 Trips to see “Les Misérables”

Chapter 18

Trips to see “Les Misérables”

I have made it clear that my interest in “Les Misérables” bordered on obsession (my family would tell you there is no doubt about it – it was clear-cut). Because I used it in school, my obsession became contagious as pupils took to it (though I would not have insisted if they had said they didn’t like it). They read the book or extracts from it, watched DVDs, wrote essays and reviews, discussed characters and themes, translated the songs and even occasionally sang them (in French and in English) in concerts and in the classroom.

At one point, even innocent phrases used in class reminded me of songs from Les Mis and I would add to the phrase, singing lyrics from a song from the show, e.g. a question such as “What have I done?” might be asked, and I (or eventually a pupil) might add …. “…. Sweet Jesus, what have I done, become a thief in the night …. etc.”

Naturally enough, all of this led to repeated requests to see the show live rather than depend on books, DVDs and CDs, so we organised several excursions to London (and another to Edinburgh) to attend performances. As I have already said, all school trips and excursions serve not only to fulfil their direct educational purpose, but also help develop personal skills and growth which can be achieved in all sorts of ways, and this principle is applicable to both pupils and staff ….

When organising these trips to London, I quickly discovered that while the cost of transport and theatre tickets remained pretty static, the cost of accommodation varied considerably, and not just between hotels – the time of year and even other events (such as the London Olympics) influenced the price. I therefore researched hotels carefully in an attempt to find the best deal for our party, especially as accommodation was the costliest element of our trip.

And so, on one occasion, I opted for a hotel in Russell Square because it was more reasonably priced than many of the other possibilities, though it meant a fair hike to the theatre in the evening for our group of 14, but I thought that might be quite enjoyable as it was London and everything was new, big and fascinating. However, I failed to take in to account the fact that by early evening our group was tired and hungry and couldn’t face the fairly lengthy walk to theatre land. So, thinking on my feet, I came up with the obvious and easy solution of taking the underground – a station was just a few hundred yards from our hotel.

Those readers who have travelled on the London Underground in the early evening will know why this was not a good idea. To say the station was mobbed is a gross understatement. If ever there was a physical embodiment of the phrase “packed like sardines in a tin can”, it was Russell Square Underground station that evening shortly after five p.m. You could not move without rubbing up against someone, nudging them or pushing them, all in order to get nearer the train platform, which was also awash with people.

I was also unaware of the fact that at Russell Square station, there is a considerable distance to descend to reach the platforms themselves. We all piled into one of the three available lifts, the capacity of which was some fifty persons, but it filled remarkably quickly as there seemed to be no alternative flights of stairs, and it appeared that half of London’s population had decided to join us at that particular station at that particular time.

As we descended and I began to realise the mistake I had made in choosing this area for our accommodation and then in opting for the underground as a means of transport to the theatre, I realised we had another somewhat more pressing problem. One of the pupils, Nicola, was slightly claustrophobic and was not coping well with the crowds we encountered on entering the station, and then in the busy lift. The poor girl was struggling to remain calm and breathe at a regular pace. I tried to be reassuring and pointed out we would soon be out of the lift and on the platform. Of course, when the doors parted to reveal an almost solid mass of people she felt even worse and she began to sound panicky and breathe even more heavily.

It was clear we had to get Nicola (and the others) out of there as fast as possible. I suggested leaving immediately, but that would have meant taking the lift again and that prospect didn’t go down well. Nicola and a few of her friends sat on a bench at the rear of the platform and I turned to seek information on when the next train was due, only to see and hear it make its triumphant entrance into the station. I was overjoyed. Obviously, we’d have to battle our way on to the train, but at least we were making progress and our pupils’ ordeal would soon be over.

My colleague Joan and I called our pupils forward to make their way on the train, and as it pulled up my heart just sank. The train was, naturally, just as crammed with people as the station. The warning klaxon sounded and the doors opened to reveal a wall of people, some of whom stood with their backs to us, still in the slightly curved shape of the doors against which they had clearly been pressed quite firmly.

I stood and hesitated, failing to see how our group could possibly join the train, but Joan leapt into action, announcing “Right, come on!”, and charged into the group of passengers on the train. With about half of our group immediately behind her, Joan led what amounted to an assault on the carriage and, astonishingly, managed to get several of her charges on board. However, it was physically impossible to get the others on board, especially Nicola for whom the prospect of boarding the packed carriage was virtually crippling.

Joan gave me a look from inside the carriage that said “Come on then!”, but I could only shake my head despondently and mouth “We can’t”. I moved two of my fingers in a walking motion in front of me, indicating we would go to the theatre on foot. As the warning klaxon sounded again and the doors started to close, a look of horror came across Joan’s face and she mouthed “Where’s the theatre?” Fortunately, I had just invested in a mobile phone (they were relatively new at the time) and we had all shared our numbers in case of an emergency, and this was definitely an emergency, so I gestured to her to phone once we got to the surface, and as I did so the train whisked them off into the tunnel.

I turned and saw looks that asked “What now?” from the remaining half of the group. Having reassured them we were leaving, we looked for an alternative to the lifts as a means of exit and within seconds we found the entrance to a spiral staircase which led to the surface. Our joy was slightly diminished when we saw a sign informing us there were 175 steps. However, we saw no alternative so we set off on our ascent.

Initially, I wondered if Nicola would cope with this situation, but it turned out she was so relieved at escaping the crowds on the platform that even the relatively confined space of the spiral staircase posed no problem as long as our progress was unimpeded by other people. The others in the group also seemed happy to join in the “adventure”.

I, on the other hand, was feeling guilty and felt the need to lighten the mood and lessen the impact of having to climb 175 steps to reach the surface, so I started making jokes and ran up several steps at a time with exaggerated dynamism and energy. We reached the surface shortly afterward and the whole party seemed to have enjoyed the experience amid much joking and laughter, and Nicola seemed to recover with every step she took until she showed no sign of distress by the time we reached the top of the staircase. The same cannot be said of me – I was so unfit, became so breathless and expended so much energy trying to entertain as we climbed, that when we got to the top I sounded like a loud, asthmatic Darth Vader about to expire.

Once I had recovered enough to make a phone call, I called Joan and gave her directions to a restaurant near the theatre where we all met and had dinner together.

The funny thing is I remember hardly anything about the performance that night.

Pupils (and staff) went through a lot to see the show in London or Edinburgh – hours of travel, fatigue and discomfort, high expense and usually lots of walking, but every trip was marked by excitement, pleasure, admiration and even inspiration. The show generally had quite an effect on those who saw it. Apart from producing heart-felt essays for me, many pupils went on to make repeat visits to the show (some even in New York), while others developed a broader interest in the theatre and literature, reading more Victor Hugo and writing pieces about “Notre Dame de Paris” for Advanced Higher Music. One pupil even went on to pursue a career in acting and claimed it all started with a visit to Les Mis. For me, it is a source of great satisfaction and pride that these trips should have had such a positive effect.

Of course, sometimes the excitement was the result of meeting a celebrity who was in the cast. Producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh has regularly cast young pop stars in the role of Marius and some years ago, that honour fell to Jon Lee, formerly of S-Club 7 fame, and who was now trying to establish a career in musical theatre.

Several of the girls on one trip were keen to meet him and get his autograph so I agreed we could go around to the Stage Door after the performance. By that time, we were all quite tired and I was a bit grumpy as we had a fairly lengthy walk ahead of us and it was starting to get cold. That said, I understood the attraction of meeting someone they had seen on TV, so I was happy enough to go along with being Stage Door johnnies – up to a point.
Several members of the cast appeared and our group was quite thrilled to see them close up as they had thoroughly enjoyed their performances, but still the “main event” (Jon Lee) hadn’t emerged. It was cold and getting late, and I was keen to make a move, but our party was equally determined to see Jon Lee and I was left in no doubt that seeing him was our priority.

I was somewhat appeased when Sophia Ragavelas (who played Eponine) appeared and immediately started chatting with the kids. I had a brief conversation with her and she took a genuine interest in where we were from and what we thought of the show, but still no Jon Lee.

Eventually the young blond-haired singer barged out of the Stage Door, to the obvious delight of his Invergordon fans, and he looked around, grunted something as he slapped his forehead and re-entered the building! The girls were crest-fallen and I was not happy at all. I rapidly rehearsed to myself a speech about how these young people had travelled 600 miles and spent eight hours on a train to see him, so would he mind signing a few autographs. A few seconds later he re-appeared, this time carrying a sizeable musical case presumably with a large instrument inside. He had simply forgotten it and had gone back in to collect it, and had not, as I surmised, decided he couldn’t face any adoring fans and run away.

I felt a little guilty at my misinterpretation of his actions, and in the face of a strange reluctance on the part of my pupils to initiate a conversation, I stepped in and asked – nicely – if he would give them his autograph. The lad couldn’t have been any nicer or more accommodating. He chatted with them and supplied as many autographs as they requested, though when he spied a free cab, he decided he had to grab it. At that moment, he was chatting to Nikki who was a very big fan and who was over the moon at meeting the man. He apologised and explained he needed to grab the taxi and, placing his hands around Nikki’s waist, he moved her gently to one side so he could go for his taxi. As he hurried off, Nikki just stared at me with a little smile which suggested something approaching bliss, and then she let out a lengthy squeal of pure excitement and disbelief. I think she virtually floated all the way to the hotel after that.

In a vaguely similar incident, I scared the living daylights out of Gareth Gates in April 2010. That was the year of the 25th anniversary of Les Mis and Sir Cameron Mackintosh launched a nationwide tour of a reworked version of the show (incorporating new staging and direction), and it returned to the Playhouse in Edinburgh, a mere 12 years after its last visit and the first time I saw it.

A colleague, Linda, and I organised a trip and a party of about 20 set off for Edinburgh to catch a matinee performance. Valjean was played by John Owen-Jones, probably my favourite actor/singer in the part, and Marius was played by Gareth Gates who, like Jon Lee, had had success as a pop star and was now breaking in to musical theatre. As usual the show was much appreciated and at the end, our group joined me giving the cast a standing ovation.

After the show our coach driver kindly offered to bring the coach to us so we were to wait outside the entrance to the theatre. As we huddled together to chat about what we had just seen, one of our young ladies, Emma, looked down the steep hill at the side of the theatre (which leads to the Stage Door) and announced to our group, “Oh my God! Gareth Gates is coming up that hill right now!” To my surprise, she and her friends moved not one inch, despite their obvious excitement at catching sight of Mr Gates. Realising they would later regret their inaction, I suggested they go and speak to him. There were abrupt shakings of the head and cries of “No!”, but I repeated my suggestion and pointed out he would soon be gone. Their response was the same – it was clearly considered uncool to approach him, though their desire to speak to him was clear to all. “Do you want me to go and speak to him?” I asked. It was evidently not considered uncool for an ageing teacher to accost a young pop star as they uniformly nodded their heads in agreement and looked at me expectantly.

Now, you have to understand that if I am tasked with doing something, I like to get on with it straight away and I prefer to be direct. So, without even considering the possibility of waiting for Mr Gates at the top of the hill, I set off down the steep slope at a pace.

Mr Gates and two or three fellow cast members were casually making their way up the hill when he looked up and caught sight of me bearing down on him. The look of growing concern that came over his face made me realise how I must have appeared to him – a total stranger with a look of intent (focus) approaching at considerable speed. I realised I must have inadvertently seemed quite threatening.

It was then that I flashed a big smile (supposed to be reassuring) and called out the classic line, “It’s all right – I’m a teacher!” As if that was a guarantee of anything!

The young man’s mind was, however, suitably put at rest when we shook hands and he was able to verify I was, indeed, quite harmless. He willingly agreed to have his photo taken with our group, with whom he chatted happily for several minutes.

The favour was returned to me within just a few minutes when several pupils pointed out John Owen-Jones to me, as he also made his way up the hill from the Stage Door. I learned from my experience with poor Gareth and I allowed Mr Owen-Jones to reach the street before pouncing on him. We had a brief conversation about the qualities of the new version of the show and a few pupils were thoughtful enough to photograph me talking to him, and although I didn’t squeal with delight, I was a very happy man as we clambered on to our coach and headed for home.

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