Reviewed by Frances Revel
It’s been a good year so far for Victor Hugo. The film adaptation of the musical version of his epic tale Les Miserables not only stormed the box office but also swept the floor at the awards ceremonies, delighting critics and cinemagoers alike. And now? The world premiere of the unfinished Lionel Bart adaptation of his tragic tale of a kindly hunchback’s love for a beautiful gypsy hits London.
Quasimodo undeniably has echoes of Les Mis. Both in the juxtaposition of powerful ensemble numbers with pained solos, and in the tragic overtones of poverty, broken society and misjudgement that pervade the piece. But it curiously possesses something else, which I am yet to put my finger on. The standout song in Act 1 was Abracadabra which matched any huge musical theatre number and if it had the belt note, would have given Wicked’s Defying Gravity a run for its money!
I had never been to the Kings Head Theatre prior to Friday night, and found a quaint, quirky little venue in the heart of Islington. The house was packed, which unfortunately led to the performance being particularly cramped. This intimacy did provide a feeling of togetherness, but I did miss the ability to shift in my seat without elbowing my neighbour.
This segues nicely into one key element of Quasimodo to be applauded, which is the sheer use of space within the theatre. No inch of the stage is left untouched, and the set is cleverly constructed to give a sense of different levels and true height to Quasimodo’s bell tower hideaway. There is also a versatility which stems from the ingenious use of ladders.
But what of our dear hunchback friend? A difficult part to play (done so by Steven Webb), balancing physical disability with an unnervingly flawless singing voice – it could have ended up tacky or in bad taste. But the young actor in this role was sensitive and moving. He was not alone, with the entire company displaying a boundless energy and tenacity in their performance. Esmerelda (Zoe George) packed an impressive set of lungs, and I have no doubt that she is a face we will be seeing a lot more of in years to come.
In spite of this, I did feel some discomfort in the piece. This is not a cheerful story. It depicts bullying, prejudice, betrayal, unrequited love and heartbreak. These are all familiar subject matter in the realm of musical theatre, but usually good prevails (if even a little). Instead there is no respite from the plight of Quasimodo – his ending not a happy one. I suspect this is one of the reasons it took so long for this work to come to life. We long for escapism on a trip to the theatre – not a grim reminder of the pain life can afford us.
Nevertheless, this work is a gem. It has all of the ingredients necessary to transfer to a bigger theatre, grow its cast and be recognised alongside the likes of Hugo and Bart’s other masterpieces. A cast recording for this beautiful music must happen. I suspect that unlike for Quasimodo himself, life will hold a happier reality for this production – and I shall be keen to watch it grow.
Quasimodo plays at the Kings Head Theatre until 13 April. Click here for tickets.