King's Head Theatre, London
Based on Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris
Music and words by Lionel Bart
Additional book material by Chris Bond and Robert Chevara
Directed by Robert Chevara
Written in 1968 and incredibly never before performed, Lionel Bart's Quasimodo scales the epic grandeur of this classic tale, taming it into a show some two hours long that packs in 24 numbers. The story is well known, numerous film versions exist and even Disney released their own much nominated musical animation, with songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. What makes Bart's show all the more astonishing is that it was penned some 30 years prior to the Disney movie and whilst some, (not many) of the Englishman's lyrics lack sophistication, his ability to pinpoint those pivotal moments of humanity: hope, despair, jealousy but above all, compassion and love, provides a framework around which this fabulous, even if somewhat rudimentary, show has been constructed.
Steven Webb plays the hunchback. Avoiding corny prosthetics save for a gruesome gimlet contact lens, Webb projects the hideous deformity of the young man with a combination of makeup and craft. His movement is sublime (a nod there to Lee Proud's choreography), even if, occasionally his vocal representation of this deaf young man with learning difficulties is sometimes clichéd. As always Webb is a delight to both watch and listen to. He earns our sympathy and with two numbers in particular, If Only I Were Made of Stone (sung to the cathedral gargoyles, an address that Schwartz and Menken reversed with their shtick routine of A Guy Like You) and later with Introducing You, a song that reminds us of Bart's Consider Yourself from Oliver!, in which Quasimodo delightfully introduces the cathedral bells to Esmeralda, Webb’s energy shines out. Musical director Peter Mitchell makes effective use of keyboards to suggest the different bells, in a delightful moment of music provided a very strong suggestion of location.
It is barely a cigarette paper that separates the lead roles of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Hugo’s novel was titled in French: Notre Dame de Paris and not as many believe, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Esmeralda (who was in fact Hugo’s main protagonist) and the love and passion that she arouses in what could be a potential ménage a cinq, provides the material for much of the show's story. Making her London debut, Zoe George is the fiery Gypsy girl who inspires the hero’s love, as well as the far more base lusts of Bishop Claude Frollo and Captain of the Guard Phoebus. George gives a passionate portrayal of the sparkling peasant girl, her flowing black hair, bare feet and simple white gypsy skirts completing the characterisation. Whilst her vocals could be perhaps a little more polished, her solitary number Live and Let Live, is a beautiful composition, movingly sung.
In Hugo’s Les Miserables, the bad-guy Thenardiers were comic villains. Here however the French author makes his villain far more dark. Claude Frollo, ostensibly a chaste priest, harbours wicked lustful intentions towards Esmeralda and James Wolstenholme’s performance of this critical supporting character is close to flawless. A casting fault of the producers however is that Wolstenholme is far too young for the role. Frollo needs to be old enough to be the equivalent of a father figure to Quasimodo and this age gap should further underline the repugnancy of his lust for the girl.
Christopher Hone’s set design makes imaginative use of ladders and platforms to suggest the cathedral rooftop whilst Robert Chevara directs his versatile cast of only 8 across numerous roles. The programme, in honest candour, describes the show as a diamond in the rough. Notwithstanding, Quasimodo has a pulse of fresh originality that can all too often be lacking in current musicals. Produced on a tiny budget and in a modest auditorium, this production emphasises the “Theatre” in Musical Theatre, providing a stirring tragic spectacle that should not be missed.
Runs to 13th April 2013