When the curtain rises on the youth production of Les Miserables at the Millennium Forum at the end of this month, director Jonathan Burgess will have an extra reason to celebrate.
For not only will he have pulled together one of the most ambitious productions the Forum’s Youth Theatre Group have ever staged but he will also have done it while recovering from a serious illness which almost cost him his leg.
Rehearsals had not long begun for the show - which has an 80 strong cast - when Jonathan took unexpectedly ill.
A small cut on his foot turned into a life threatening infection which led to him being hospitalised for three weeks while he recovered.
“I have diabetes so an injury to the foot can be serious, but I didn’t think it would end up with me in hospital for three weeks.
“I’m told I’ve been very lucky,” he said. “I could have lost my leg - it could have been worse.”
Jonathan took ill on the day of his step-daughter’s 16th birthday. His illness also led his family to have to cancel their long awaited holiday - but Jonathan isn’t complaining.
“I know that I’m lucky to be here and to be able to go back to work.”
Jonathan, who is also one of the city’s most respected playwrights, has come back from his illness determined not to let it slow him down.
And with 80 young people preparing for opening night in the Forum on July 31 - he has had to hit the ground running. Thankfully, he says, his team at the Forum have kept things ticking over while he was unwell - and the score is starting to come together.
“I am lucky to have such a great team working with me here at the Forum. I knew the show was in the capable hands of our musical director Alan Wright and that each of the young people here on stage is dedicated to what they are doing.”
Les Miserables - a tale of revolution, love, loss and redemption in revolutionary France -is a complex piece of musical theatre. It also touches on some adult themes such as prostitution. So how does Jonathan deal with bringing such a serious show to the stage - with a cast whose members are as young as 12.
“To be honest my job is often done before these young people even get to the stage. They audition for shows they like - and are passionate about what they do - so they will already be very familiar with the storyline of Les Mis.
“For many of these young people musical theatre is their hobby - they spend time listening to the tracks, watching the videos and learning the songs.
“What we see are young people with the very real ambition to make it in the West End.”
But are these just pipe dreams or does Derry have talent? “We first staged Les Mis with the Youth Group in 2007. While that was of a high standard, there is no doubt the standard has grown exponentially since then.
“This show is about shining the spotlight on the elite of local talent.
“It may sound harsh, but this is not a process where everyone gets a go regardless of their ability. The standard is high and we expect those involved to take their roles very seriously.”
Indeed the strength of the Youth Theatre’s previous productions have earned the company an impressive reputation both in and outside of the city.
“We have people travelling from as far as Coleraine and Donegal town. These young people travel up and down every day and give their all to rehearsals. You have to be impressed with that.”
For the young cast the process of being part of a Youth Theatre production is not easy.
There is a cutthroat and competitive audition process, call backs and a fairly gruelling rehearsal schedule which takes up at least half of their summer holidays.
“The young people are given a real taste of what working in a professional theatre company is like. Many of them have ambitions to work on the West End - and timing is the key. The theatre is a bit like professional football in that respect - you have to be ready to hit the ground running when you leave school or go for a role or they will pass you by.
“What we do here prepares our young people so that they will be meet to meet the demands of the audition process, the rehearsal schedule and of course the performances themselves.” For some of the young people the show will be their first time on the professional stage - but the calibre of performers on stage speaks for itself. Derry songstress Mairead Carlin starred in the last youth production of Les Miserables while last year’s star of Grease, Rachel O’Connor made it through to the final stages of the BBC Talent competition ‘The Voice’.
Jonathan paid tribute not only to his cast and crew but also to the team at the Millennium Forum. “Without David McLaughlin and the Forum we would be unable to give these young people this opportunity.”
Les Miserables runs at the Forum from July 31 to August 2. For tickets visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk or call the box office on 71264455.