Sunday 24th March 2013, matinée
Like its protagonist, Quasimodo is a quasi Lionel Bart musical, not quite finished, dark and violent in places, but with a kind heart. Bizarrely, director Robert Chevera went to the Bart estate to ask about another piece, and was instead offered Quasimodo, with a partial score, a showcase CD with a few songs and the chance of putting on a posthumous world premiere.
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’, the plot is full of complexity, encompassing many characters (not least the cathedral of Notre Dame itself) and themes. It could be said that it is the alluring gypsy-girl Esmeralda who really drives the plot forward through the prejudice she suffers, and the adoration she inspires. The Archdeacon of Notre Dame, Claude Frollo, is captivated by her charms, but realising he cannot succeed in seducing her his lust turns to jealousy and hatred. Meanwhile, she is in love with army captain Phoebus, who is already engaged but deceives her nonetheless. Only Quasimodo seems to show her real kindness when he rescues her from a false charge of attempted murder and keeps her in the church, believing she will be safe under the laws of sanctuary. Sadly his love is not fully reciprocated and he is ultimately not able to save her.
Bearing in mind that other Hugo-based musical ‘Les Miserables’ and its epic scale, anyone who has been inside the King’s Head will know we are not exaggerating when we say this is a bold enterprise. In some ways, the staging is almost too bold. With a network of ladders upstage and a mezzanine platform which represents the bell-tower, the set allows for plenty of dynamism (with an unexpected broken table adding a dangerous edge for those of us in the front row), but in other ways the setting is a little to literal for such a small space. Less paraphernalia would have allowed us to use our imagination more, especially when the action was set outside or on the steps of the cathedral.
We also can’t help having a little whine about the costumes. There’s nothing wrong with modern dress if that is a conscious choice, but the mash-up of medieval grunge with modern touches such as motorcycle boots, leathers, string vests and hoodies is distracting and irritating. James Wolstenholme has done well to snaffle the best costume as Archdeacon Frollo, but it looks as though the budget ran out half way through and the rest of the cast had to make do with a random mix of modern and historical. Perhaps we are underestimating the difficulty of the task, but we would have thought that it would be quite easy to make peasants look authentic.
Of course we shouldn’t lose sight of the main reason for putting on this production – a chance to see a ‘lost’ musical by the legendary Lionel Bart. And this cast, assisted by a trio of musicians led by musical director Peter Mitchell, certainly do the music justice. Steven Webb has a warm and melodious voice which brings out the contrast between the outward appearance of the hunchback (more on this later) and his good heart. Zoe George does an excellent job of playing both innocence and streetwise bravado as Esmeralda, and James Hume as the poet Pierre Gringoire whom she marries to save his life (don’t ask), and James Wolstenholme as Frollo have their moments as the epitome of goodness and evil respectively. There are many numbers to enjoy, ranging from the upbeat song in which Quasimodo introduces his bells to Esmeralda, to the touching ‘turn to stone’, in which he wishes he could be like the gargoyles which adorn the cathedral. Esmeralda’s duet with her ‘husband’, ‘Abracadabra’ is particularly effective as a topsy-turvy love song, while the black comedy is given free reign in ‘Deaf as a doornail’. A cast recording would certainly be a worthwhile enterprise.
There is however an elephant in the room. Very rarely is it appropriate to comment on the physical beauty or otherwise of cast members, but in this case it is impossible to ignore the fact that Steven Webb is a very nice looking young man, with no signs of disfigurement or deformity. In a story which has such a strong theme of prejudice, including appearance, where characters literally reel back in horror at the ugliness of Quasimodo, you really can’t duck the issue. Webb suggests deformity by his posture, but not consistently, and with no hunchback as such, and only a painted birthmark covering half his face and a contact lens to suggest his missing eye, it is impossible to believe in the fear and horror that his appearance is meant to provoke, or the physical strength which adds to the fear he inspires, and without this frisson, it is hard to really appreciate the human emotions which emerge from the ‘monster’ and the message which Hugo wanted to give. Quasimodo looks like a self-conscious lovestruck teenager, but ultimately this misses the point – in the fifteenth century there was no such thing as adolescence, and it is this which makes his love for Esmeralda so touching. This is not a story which is improved by giving it a modern sensibility.
Yet this production, though frustrating at times, is well worth seeing for the quality of the cast and the strength of Bart’s music which shines through and gives us an intriguing glimpse of what might have been if he had lived to polish up this gem. There is one note of caution we should sound, along with a spoiler. This version is true to Hugo’s original work, in that Esmeralda meets a tragic end. As a mother sitting behind us with her two young children was moved to point out as our heroine swung from the gallows ‘It’s not like the Disney version is it?’ Disney it certainly ain’t, and all the better for it.