Stoic hand for Les Miserables
Ian Westrip, standing, and John Milson, bottom right, with performers Brendon Hanson and Nicole Kaminski, who plays Eponine. Picture: Ron Banks.

Theatre director John Milson isn't going to let a little thing like cancer stop him from taking charge of the latest production of Les Miserables.

Although confined to a wheelchair by his illness, the veteran director has already rejected chemotherapy so that he can direct with his usual flair and empathetic command.

"I can tell you that if anyone recommends chemotherapy, tell them to shove it," says Milson as he begins another rehearsal at Stages in Perth Modern School's original gymnasium that has also been its manual arts centre.

Milson says he had a very bad reaction to his first round of chemotherapy and decided he would do without any further treatment.

How that decision will affect his health remains to be seen but Milson is sanguine about his chances of improvement, although he admits that Les Miserables will probably be his last production in a 50-year career in the theatre.

"I just love rehearsing and I've never done anything else," he says. "I've got no business sense, no practical skills, so I will keep working in the theatre.

His only regret about "this cancer business" is that it has robbed him of his mobility and that being in a wheelchair is frustrating.

"Hopefully it will get better," says the 75-year-old Milson, referring more to his mobility than to his illness. "I can't move very quickly, but otherwise my life's getting back to normal. It's a recovery of sorts."

The current production is Milson's third time in charge of Les Miserables, and the latest in a long line of Boublil productions in Perth with musical director Ian Westrip dating from the 1980s and 90s.

"We needed him for this production," says Westrip, referring to Milson's vast experience as a director from his early days in Sydney theatre, to Perth's Hole in the Wall, and 13 years as head of music theatre at the WA Academy of Performing Arts.

As I watch Milson and Westrip rehearse their young cast for Les Miserables, it is obvious that Milson's directorial talents have not been diminished one iota by illness.

His voice remains deep and authoritative, encouraging and urging his actors to reach deep into themselves to bring out the characters they are playing. "That's much clearer, guys. In fact, its pretty right," he says encouragingly after one particular scene is rehearsed several times.

Milson says he never keeps notes from one production to the next, so he is forced to revisit and rethink each scene. "The more I look at Les Miserables, the more I think it is a wonderful score and a wonderful story," he says.

"Les Miserables comes from the golden age of musicals that followed the formula-

driven works of artists like Rodgers and Hammerstein. It came along at a time about 25 years ago when the musical was looking very dated, and I'd call it one of those glorious one-offs that revitalised the theatre. I don't think we will see its like again."

Les Miserables will feature a cast of about 60 with experienced actor Brendan Hanson - seen on Channel 10's I Will Survive - playing the lead role of Jean Valjean, the town mayor who overcomes early imprisonment only to be pursued relentlessly by the chief of police, Javert.

Written by Frenchmen Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil from Victor Hugo's novel, the musical opened in London's Barbican Theatre in 1985 and has never been out of production somewhere in the world.

A film version of the musical, the first despite at least six film dramatisations of the novel, will open in Australia in December.

It stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert and Ann Hathaway as Fantine, in a production directed by Tom Hooper of The King's Speech fame.

Les Miserables runs at the Regal Theatre from tomorrow to October 21.

The West Australian

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