Sunday 11 February 1996 The world's most popular musical is holding what looks like the territory's most popular auditions. The Australian production of Les Miserables, which is due to arrive here in April, needs both a home-grown Cosette ('A sweet, innocent waif' states the ad) and a Gavroche ('A spunky street urchin'). As the law strictly regulates numbers of juvenile performances, it actually needs three of each, aged between seven and 11, no taller than 1.38 metres, all nationalities welcome. By 10 am, hundreds of children and adults have set up camp in the lobby of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and are being filmed, photographed, interrogated and generally inspected by the honourable members of the press. This lack of privacy, combined with continuous bellowing (from a megaphone), a flutter of tricolours and a sprawl of bodies, successfully conveys the deprivations of 19th-century France which Cosette and Gavroche are supposed to endure. There's definitely Method in the madness. The children are corralled into groups of about 10, numbered, then led away to be auditioned by Martin Croft, the company's resident director. Parents are not allowed into the theatre ('Are they being gentle in there?' queries one anguished mother) but the television crews have already settled in, waving lights and furry booms over pallid little faces. Those adults present agree, in undertones, that they wouldn't go through this for a million dollars, not that that's being offered. The exact sum which each child will be paid is undisclosed, won't be a fortune and is, in any case, irrelevant. Not a single parent alludes to the money, in the same way that no parent says 'Yep, dragged my kid in here because I'm going to make her a star whether she likes it or not.' It quickly becomes apparent that Hong Kong is a hot-bed of shrimp-sized talent. James Cundall, co-founder of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions which is bringing Les Miserables into the territory, has said earlier that if standards here are not high enough, they'll bring up the children from the Singapore run, but luckily that won't be necessary. There's already been one nasty letter, printed in this paper, accusing the whole operation of being an amateur production because it's auditioning locals. 'Cameron Mackintosh, the producer, has done this for every show,' Cundall says. 'And it would have been easier for us to take the kids up from Australia.' Even he is slightly stunned by a couple of the would-be Cosettes. 'There was one little thing belting it out,' he whispers, awed. 'And she sounded just like Ethel Merman.' Croft doesn't want a ball-breaker, however. He wants a heart-breaker, straight from the gutter. About 160 waifs sing 'Castle On A Cloud' - a sad little ditty of orphan longing - to him all day. It's the sort of tune which loiters in the brain for about a week afterwards. It's also strangely affecting: you have to resist the urge to rush to the Po Leung Kuk and adopt a child instantly. Croft, however, is made of stern, professional stuff and manages to cull the numbers swiftly and relatively painlessly, although there are some tears out in the foyer as cloud castles evaporate into thin air. Meanwhile, about 40 boys have also been strutting their stuff and scampering about the theatre to demonstrate physical dexterity. Gavroche is a grubby sewer rat, frankly, and it's unlikely Croft will find similar depths of degradation among these innocent lads. In fact two youngsters, thumbing through an old Les Miserables programme to pass the time, come across a colour still of half-clad, leering prostitutes and can hardly restrain their horror. 'Yeuch,' they cry. 'It says that they're called Lovely Ladies but they look fat.' Out in the foyer the parents are keeping what is, by this stage, a faintly neurotic vigil. Cundall has already announced that the chosen children will have to rehearse in Singapore, where Les Miserables is touring, for two weeks. There is a mild bit of tut-tutting at this information but, as he correctly forecasts, no one pulls out on the grounds that such an upheaval is far too inconvenient to contemplate. By late afternoon, six children have been chosen. Their names are embargoed until all details have been formalised with their parents. Monday 11 March 1996 At a press conference at the APA, it is announced that Adam Ismail and brothers David and Michael Forrai will play Gavroche, and that Elaine Doran, Eilidh Ho and Sharon Kung will play Cosette. The assembled hacks make a note of this, and then focus their attention on Stig Rossen who is Danish and who has the lead role of Jean Valjean. What does he think of Alexandra Manley, now a princess of Denmark? Rossen, mildly perplexed by this line of questioning, nevertheless launches into a (spoken) hymn of praise. The children are more or less ignored. 'It's funny, I was expecting the journalists to be much more aggressive, like they are on television,' says a relieved Shelagh Ho, Eilidh's mother, afterwards. Wednesday 27 March 1996 It's at least 15 degrees hotter in Singapore than in foggy Hong Kong. At the stage door of the Kallang Theatre there's a wall covered in luvvie messages for the cast, including one from Trevor Nunn who directed the first production of Les Miserables in London, in 1985. 'Singapore is a fabled, legendary place to us in chilly Britain..., ' he begins, vividly. Opposite this, there's an even more colourful memo from Mark Rowe, the company manager: 'In case no one has noticed, the refrigerator in the Green Room smells like something has died in it. I do not wish to have to gag everytime I open it to get some milk. Would you please... '. Of such contrasts are an actor's life made. An assortment of Hong Kong relatives - including Adam's mother and grandparents, Eilidh's mother and 11-year-old sister Kirsten, and David and Michael's mother, grandmother and four-year-old sister, Sarah - is sitting next to the offending fridge in the Green Room, while the girls are upstairs going through their final Singapore rehearsal. It's only their third, but Martin Croft is so pleased with their progress that he has deemed this to be sufficient. If the truth be told, the children are a tad disappointed that they haven't had to spend hours and hours rehearsing. Everyone has become thoroughly acquainted with Singapore's tourist attractions and with the shops on Orchard Road. 'It's all a big adventure to them,' observes George Doran, Elaine's father and an ex-chairman of Chesterton's. 'But little brats like this take it in their stride. It would frighten the life out of me. When I was a kid, something like this just wouldn't happen. Kids today lead such privileged lives that they accept it all.' This faintly puzzled observation is a fair summing-up of the parental attitude to their stage-struck offspring. Without exception, the six children have ended up in this production either because their schools told them about the audition (Sharon and Eilidh are at the Chinese International School, and Adam and Michael are at Glenealy School, which both have strong links with Hong Kong theatre life) or because their friends did. Meanwhile five sets of parents, whose lives have been considerably disrupted by events, hover round the edges of the action looking pleased but nonplussed, as if they've been hit over the head by a large bouquet of flowers. The fact that they're forbidden to attend rehearsals only deepens their sense of mystery. In the empty theatre, Croft is once more listening to the pitiful strains of 'Castle On A Cloud', this time sung by Sharon. Then Eilidh. Then Elaine. The girls can now do appropriate skivvying gestures as they're performing on a set complete with brooms, pails, chairs, and they look touchingly tiny against the dark cavern of the stage. The only problem is that they're beaming with pleasure, instead of cowering in appropriately abused fashion. 'You're smiling too much!' Croft calls out from the stalls. 'You're having too much fun, darling!' Thursday 28 March 1996 It's the boys' last rehearsal in Singapore. Gavroche is a more taxing role than Cosette, and requires much greater use of the set, so 22 understudies plus the stage crew have been called in to rehearse with them. Maree Paine, the children's official chaperone-cum-dresser, applies their make-up in a dressing-room which is used by the local children in the Singapore production. Enter At Your Own Risk is written in wobbly writing on the door with a further caveat underneath: Dead Meat. Paine muddies the boys' knees and puts black wax on their teeth to reduce the late-20th-century fluoride dazzle; Michael lost his front tooth yesterday which helps. Then she takes a photo of Adam, with his mother's camera, and one of the Forrai brothers, with their mother's camera. Outside, on the way to the stage, Michael reveals a strange corset which lurks under his shirt ('Just like a bra' remarks David, disgustedly). This is the mike-pack which the adults in the company wear as belts, but which the children have to have strapped to their chests. The sound crew will put the pack in and take it off at various stages of the performance. The mike itself, nestling in his fringe, is the size of a pin. A few minutes later, the music starts, the lights dim, there's a terrifying moan of anguish from the stage as the huddled masses of Paris send up a collective wail. And into this grim spectacle bounces Michael, crying 'Ow do you do? My name's Gavroche...', and looking as if he's spent his life in a French slum. In the wings, Adam and David hop about to the music, waving their skinny arms and giving each other high-fives as the bullets find their student targets during the barricade scenes. (For those of you who haven't seen Les Miserables, it's perhaps worth pointing out that it's several light years removed from the jolly trills of, say, Naughty Marietta.) David and Adam perform with equal - and distinctly impressive - aplomb. Why aren't their muddied knees knocking? 'Children tend not to have nerves,' Paine says. 'It's fun for them to go out and do it. They don't care like we would.' Croft halts proceedings at various junctures to check positions on the stage, and finally calls the boys down to the stalls for a chat. 'Let the audience see your faces,' he says. 'They won't cry if they can't see your faces.' Thunder from a late afternoon storm reverberates around the deserted theatre. It sounds like gunfire. Or maybe applause. Friday 29th March 1996 On the Cathay flight back to Hong Kong, while the children play with their inflight freebies, the mothers ponder their fate. 'The boys are loving this,' says Sofia Forrai. 'They can't have enough of it. From the beginning I said 'Listen guys, I don't want you to change your attitude towards me, your elders, anyone.' I'm afraid of that but Michael adores David, he looks up to him, so I think it will be OK... If they really want to do it professionally, I'd support them. But they must have an education first, of course. My husband is very strict about that.' 'I was the one who was most nervous,' says Anne Marie Ismail. 'To Adam, it's play. He has never sung a whole song in front of me. Not before this.' 'Sharon was Clara last year in The Nutcracker with the Hong Kong Ballet,' says Anna Kung. 'And she hasn't changed. She's still happy and eating and reading books. I would say that the whole family, even grandma, is behind her a hundred per cent. They say to her 'Don't worry about failure or success, just do your best.'' 'We've been to Club Med before,' says Donna Doran, 'and they get the kids up on stage, dress them up, get them singing. And Elaine loved it, she loved the attention.' 'Even if Eilidh did nothing else in her life,' says Shelagh Ho, 'she'll always be able to say that, at the age of nine, she was in this production. They came to Hong Kong when she was just the right height.' Thursday 4 April 1996 It's cold, grey and miserable in fabled, legendary Hong Kong. The cast and crew, fresh from Singapore, are reeling from the low temperatures; there is much discussion about staving off sore throats and flu. The show must go on however, and in the afternoon everyone turns up in their best outfits at the Harbour Plaza in Hunghom for another press conference. In front of a group of bemused tourists who are attempting to check in, the cast and their director, Matt Ryan, who has just arrived from London, wave French flags, knock back the wine and are photographed by a posse of photographers. The children enjoy the canapes while their parents eye the merry thespians, clearly wondering if this is The Future. Back at the Cultural Centre, the technicians have spent the night assembling the barricades of 1832. Outside, next to the Star Ferry, a Ching Ming memorial has been erected to a group of students who also took to the barricades, in Beijing in 1989. Saturday 6 April 1996 Dress rehearsal and first public performance. David is Gavroche, Sharon is Cosette and, at last, parents are allowed to watch. 'But don't give any directions to the children afterwards, that's not your job,' says company manager Mark Rowe sternly, as he hands out tickets. About 100 people have been invited to the dress rehearsal and it's deemed a great success, although as Sofia Forrai admits, nerves prevented her from altogether enjoying seeing her son dangling from the set. The next time he performs will be at the black-tie premiere on Tuesday, the official opening night. Tuesday 9 April 1996 Director Matt Ryan has managed to sustain a black eye and turns up at a press conference wearing a piratical patch, the only cock-eyed aspect to the opening night. The black-tie audience obviously loves the production, sniffling audibly through the (many) death scenes and giving the company a standing ovation at the end. Sharon and David are terrific, a great credit both to themselves and to Martin Croft's patience. 'All the kids are fantastic,' he says loyally at the party afterwards where half the cast, in homage to their afflicted director, has donned eye-patches. The children demurely accept kisses, hugs and shriek congratulations from a smitten public. They have their photographs taken about 8,000 times. They dance in general communion with each other all night, only scattering in horror each time a slow number is played. For the rest of the run, the six of them will take it in turns to sing Cosette and Gavroche. And then, at the end of May, the company will move on to South Korea (political events permitting) and South Africa. Even as you're reading this, children in both Seoul and Johannesburg are already preparing their audition pieces and dreaming of starlight.