Four years after the blockbuster success of Les Miserables, exiled from France, living on the tiny island of Guernsey and exhausted of national drama and political polemics, Victor Hugo wrote a relatively straightforward love story – Toilers of the Sea.
Relatively straightforward for Victor Hugo, anyway. It still weighs in at 150,00 words (more than The Old Man and the Sea, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and the Kamasutra combined), six dramatic betrayals, more than twenty entirely indistinguishable towns-people we are expected to remember from chapter to chapter and two abandoned sub-plots I am convinced Hugo just forgot about half way through.
It is gorgeous, though. At its heart is an achingly tender story of a young man on a small island, desperately, unconditionally in love. I would recommend reading it to anyone with the time to do so.
Or, better still, come see the theatrical adaptation we’re making! We, being Lizzie Franks, Phillipa Herrick, Rosanna Lowe and me, were recently invited to spend a week developing the project at the beautiful Marine Theatre in coastal Lyme Regis.
Over much tea and many pasties we teased out scenes and structures, and began to see our own Toilers take shape. The book is dripping with music, from the ‘bird like’ piano playing of the love interest, to sloppy bar anthems hollered in Jean Auberge (the book’s Mos Eisley), to the omnipresent heartbeat of a thousand sea shanties. My job, along with Phillipa, was to pull these pieces from the pages and give them tunes and words. Freedom, as I see it, can be defined as working on the most delicate, floral, harmless piano sonata before a tea break, then setting Rosanna Lowe’s filthy, fantastic, hilarious words to an accordion-heavy drunkards lament afterwards.
And, really briefly, I have to talk about Lyme, because it is just too stunning not to. Not naturally given to early mornings, I made sure I had an hour to walk along the subdued, silver coast every morning before rehearsal. The area is famously rich in fossils, and I had planned on taking home a modestly sized specimen as a keepsake, but after having my hopes dashed by the five-hundredth unapologetically featureless pebble, I decided the pillage of these ancient artefacts was morally suspect and gave up.