Sunday, 24 March 2013

Theatre review: Quasimodo

Quasimodo means "unfinished," which is ironic because this is how Lionel Bart left his musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on his death, despite having worked on it for decades. As a result, apart from the odd concert performance, the show remained unseen until Robert Chevara's production at the King's Head. The writer of Oliver! may have swapped Dickens' London for Victor Hugo's Paris, but there's still an unmistakeable cockernee sound to the songs, especially the ensemble numbers. Abandoned by his mother as a baby, the physically deformed Quasimodo is taken in by Archdeacon Frollo (James Wolstenholme.) Given the job of bell-ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral, and making his home in the bell tower as well, by the time he's grown up Quasimodo (Steven Webb) is deaf in addition to his twisted bones and scars.

Bart attempted to adapt the original novel faithfully, complete with bleak ending (so there's no singing, dancing gargoyles. Although there is a non-singing, non-dancing gargoyle. So just a gargoyle.) This may explain why the job gave the writer so much trouble, as there's a lot of threads to the story, most of them revolving around the 15-year-old girl raised by gypsies after she too was abandoned as a child, Esmerelda (Zoe George.) She seems to enchant all the men within miles, from Quasimodo and Frollo, to the penniless playwright Pierre (James Hume) she enters into a platonic "marriage" with to save him from a lynching. But she herself is only interested in the douchey Captain Phoebus (Iestyn Arwel,) and her dalliance with him will cost her dearly.

Getting all these relationships into a fairly short musical is a problem, many of the strands feel left hanging. The Esmerelda/Pierre relationship especially feels like it should go somewhere but just tails off, and developing the supporting cast leaves the title character with little more than a cameo role until after the interval. I can't imagine the show would have survived long in the kind of glitzy West End production it was clearly intended for, but in the intimate space of the King's Head it makes for an entertaining production, Webb good as usual and getting to fling himself around a multi-level set, I also really liked Zoe George's singing voice. I'm not that enamoured with Bart's music but here the jauntily traditional musical theatre songs do make for a nice contrast with the darkness of the subject matter, and Chevara's production keeps the balance right (although Wolstenholme's rather panto-villain Frollo threatens to derail that.)

The small venue gamely tries to give a bit of spectacle to the big setpieces, particularly through Christopher Hone's set of platforms, scaffolding and ladders, although for the cast's sake I hope it's a bit more sturdy than the table used in one of the stunts: In the second act it smashed into pieces and, apart from the bits that ended up in the audience, the cast had to keep dragging its mortal remains around the stage to where it would least get in the way. Fortunately nobody got hurt as far as I could tell. Possibly inspired by the carnival that opens the story, Jonathan Lipman's costumes have a bit of a circus-meets-S&M vibe, and there's an awful lot of fishnet involved. Phoebus' costume is particularly bizarre.

Quasimodo isn't a neglected classic but it's tuneful enough to make for an entertaining show, in a production that seems determined not to let a low budget and the back room of a pub get in the way of its ambitions. (Although if they're not careful, a couple of broken bones might curb them.)

Quasimodo by Lionel Bart, based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, is booking until the 13th of April at the King's Head Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.


  1. Well (in the venerable tradition of this blog), hello there Stevie's arms. :)

    1. Well he has said he had to work out for this...