DramaLondonReviewSite-Specific

The Hunchback of Notre Dame – St Paul’s Church, London

Writer:  Benjamin Polya

Director: Bertie Watkins

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty 

Darker than the children’s cartoon, and with a better goat, it’s reaching for something true to Hugo’s novel but undermines itself with a pantomime feel.

The author chronicled the underclasses of France, humanising them in the eyes of those who disregarded them each day in the streets, and gave voice to their struggles. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, we see a number of complex interdependent and impactful stories on display. Abandoned as a baby, Quasimodo was raised by the Archdeacon of Notre Dame in Paris. Apparently orphaned after her mother died in childbirth, Esmeralda is brought up a gypsy, dancing and performing tricks for coins. These two paths cross at the annual festival of fools, where Frollo becomes infatuated by the young dancer and uses his power and position to try and snare her – resulting in tragedy for all.

Engaging the audience with some novelty and participation feels like a smart choice to communicate such weighty ideas. It’s a format the company, Iris Theatre, has a well-deserved reputation for, and there are parts that really work nicely. The introductory song to tell us we’re watching a troupe of left bank Parisian actors tell this story (explaining the multiple characters with a small cast), as well as the opening festival of fools scene sets high expectations. Then we have court scenes with a deaf, screeching judge that could be out of a forgotten Monty Python episode, or the over-long speechifying from Frollo and the nun (Esmeralda’s real mother).

The script mixes vernacular familiarity through asides, jokes, audience patter and more with passages of (like from Frollo and the nun) “serious” theatre. The effect overall is disconcerting, and it feels like an intentional stylistic choice. To have this play within a play effect, turning us into a Parisian audience is fun, but the production goes too far and loses momentum in some important story points. Too much banter, not enough substance – resulting in squeezed bits where they had the potential to make the most dramatic capital. The final scenes in the cathedral are a heady mix of murder, betrayal, love, grief and everything else, and it whips past leaving us with a glamorous looking but hollow finale.

Parts of the show feel almost ad-libbed, with performers talking over each other or rambling on with quick jokes that turn into longer discussions. Of course, some shouting over each other is necessary at times where the audience needs to be moved around the beautiful, exciting set in the church gardens – but not in the normal run of play.

A lot of promise, and backed up with the great set as well as music from the actors themselves and excellently choreographed sword fights, it falls a bit flat. Feeling longer than its 2hr 30 run time (with interval), it has a lot of material to be trimmed – bringing those quality moments to the fore.

Runs until 1 September 2019 | Image: contributed

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