Travelling to venues around the UK and Ireland, Les Miserables is a touring juggernaut. Production manager tells Andy Plaice about the military precision required to ensure the show goes up on time at each new theatre
Two washing machines are going full throttle in the far reaches of Leicester Curve’s enormous backstage area. Chris Boone, production manager on the UK tour of Les Miserables, gives them a friendly pat. They’re a small but crucial part of the show that is on a two-year journey visiting cities including Manchester, Plymouth, Bradford and Cardiff.
“Anything that touches the skin is washed after every performance,” Boone says, before adding that other costumes are washed on a rota basis. It all adds up to between 40 and 50 loads of washing per week.
Late last year, Leicester was home to the 80-strong company for three weeks. This was where I met Boone, before the show was packed away again, loaded on to 16 lorries and restaged in Dublin. After that, the wagons rolled into Edinburgh where it opened earlier this week.
On Friday lunchtime, six hours before curtain up, the building is a hive of activity. Technicians reposition the lights and run the sound checks; meanwhile the children cast for the next leg of the tour in Ireland are here in the Midlands to prepare. The costume department is brushing the wigs – there are 93 in all – and washing and ironing all the clothes, ready to go again.
A friendly, no-nonsense character, Boone has worked on many of Cameron Mackintosh’s musicals in the past couple of decades including The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Hamilton and Half a Sixpence. He started in the business in 1996 at Crewe’s Lyceum Theatre as stage crew and followspot operator, and worked his way up to master carpenter. His big break came in 2005 after Mary Poppins transferred from Bristol to London. He says: “I thought I’d be there for three months but they offered me a job as deputy production manager.”
For the past four years, Boone has mainly been working overseas and touring with different productions. “It’s been real fun. The big thing with a Cameron Mackintosh production is that it does not matter that it is a touring show – it does not matter in the sense that you’re in South Korea or wherever, the show has to be the best it can be. These are fully licensed shows so it should be the same [wherever you are in the world]. We do not cut corners.”
As an example, he reveals that during the planning stages for Mary Poppins there were fears that going from venue to venue with the show would prove a huge technical challenge. Mackintosh demanded that Mary had to fly, regardless of the theatre, Boone says. The impresario had made his feelings very clear. Getting the rigging for Poppins right in each venue was a real test, and Les Miserables is no less of a challenge thanks to the length of the tour and the tight schedule.
Military precision is required to move 80 tons of equipment from city to city with sometimes just three days between the get-out and the new set-up. Every flight case, cable or prop has to be loaded on to the lorries in the right order and come out again in the correct sequence at the other end.
As well as lighting and sound equipment, costumes and more, each cast member is also allowed one suitcase of personal belongings – maximum weight 23kg – which are loaded on trailers supplied by theatre specialist Paul Mathew Transport.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Weekend work on a farm.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Operating the followspot in Sleeping Beauty in 1996 at Lyceum Theatre, Crewe.
What is the next job?
Working on a number of projects for Cameron Mackintosh Ltd.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The working hours and days never get shorter.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
My parents and my stage manager at Crewe, Scott Ramsay – in fact everyone I have worked with over the years. Every day I learn something new.
What’s your best advice for job interviews?
Be yourself and don’t wear a tie.
If you hadn’t been a theatre production manager, what would you have been?
A golf greenkeeper or cricket groundsman.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, you make your own luck.
Two versions of the scenery exist: an A-version and a B-version, though the difference refers to size rather than quality. Curve, with its 15 metre-wide proscenium arch, is the widest venue on the tour, while one venue – which has not yet been officially announced – is as narrow as nine metres.
Dismantling a show is effectively a round-the-clock job. Boone says: “When a show finishes on a Saturday at 10.30pm, a freelance team of technicians will come in and start to dismantle the show. We start with props, wardrobe and wigs – there are three trailers just for this. The overhead lighting goes next because that has to be in the next venue by 10am Sunday.”
The show used a freelance team of 22 to load everything out of Dublin, and a different team of 29 to set up the show in Edinburgh in addition to the touring-show staff and staff from the local theatre. Boone says: “We work 24-hour days from when the show comes down to when it opens in the next city, so those who work overnight will sleep in the day.”
The get-outs begin at full pelt after the final curtain call with trailers backed up to the loading bay, though ‘deads’ and ‘empties’ such as flight cases and transport frames will have been loaded up two days beforehand.
Aside from supervising staff and crew and linking with cast and creatives to ensure a smoothly run company, liaising with city councils to move these 45ft trailers through built-up areas is something else that falls under Boone’s remit, and he is quick to point out that some venues are easier than others.
Curve was built with one eye on the demands of the 21st-century blockbuster show and is an easier move than most, he says. It’s certainly less of a challenge than cities such as Bristol and Newcastle with narrow streets. “The other thing you are dealing with – and most people never give this a moment’s thought – are the general public walking by who may well be drunk on a Saturday night. For instance, you have people who think it’s funny to go into the truck and have a wee inside.”
Les Miserables first toured the UK nine years ago to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary but groundwork for the new version began more than two years ago. While Boone worked on Hamilton in the West End for much of this period, he began devoting his energy full-time to Les Miserables about five months before its Leicester opening. As the tour continues, it is this version that will replace the West End show in December.
Boone is required to remain calm at all times and “bring joy every day”, he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Making sure all the departments have the right information is crucial to what I do. We only need one link of the chain not to work and we are screwed. The schedule is so tight. There is not enough room in these theatres to store. So it has to go out in the right order. It’s all down to the planning and the communication,” he says. “We do not have time in the schedule for mistakes. We used to have two weeks for this sort of size transfer and now we have three days. When a theatre is dark it’s not making any money.”
Even with the best planning in the world, inevitably there are occasional errors. “The first time I did it [a get-out on tour] I put the bolts in the wrong trailer so they couldn’t build the set until the last trailer arrived. Sometimes things get damaged in transit and every now and then you might leave something behind: for example the weather vane in Mary Poppins was left behind in Leicester and it should have been in Dublin.”
The washing machines have almost finished their cycle. Soon they will be packed away, destined for the next city, along with the Les Mis family and all that it owns. “The vacuum cleaners, brooms and washing machines all belong to Cameron Mackintosh Ltd and go with us. All we require is some power, some seats and somewhere to hang our scenery. We bring absolutely everything. We are like a travelling circus.”
• Mary Poppins, tour (2004)
• Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre (2017)
• Les Miserables, tour (2018)
Les Miserables is touring the UK with venues currently confirmed up until Cardiff in January 2020; lesmis.com