Lionel Bart’s Quasimodo [King’s Head]

Musical with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, book by Bart, Chris Bond & Robert Chevara [world premiere]

Quasimodo – Steven Webb
Claude Frollo – James Wolstenholme
Esmeralda – Zoe George
Pierre Gringoire – James Hume
Clopin / Fleurien – Sean Paul Jenkinson
Phoebus de Chateaupers – Iestyn Arwell
Pacquette – Helen Sheals
Yvette – Melanie Bright

Peter Mitchell (piano), Jane South or Natalia Cerqueira (accordion), Sarah Douglas or Ruth Whybrow (clarinet)

Robert Chevara – Director
Peter Mitchell – Musical DIrector
Lee Proud – Choreographer
Christopher Hone – Set Designer
Seth Rook Williams – Lighting Designer
Jonathan Lipman – Costume Designer

Reviewed by: Tom Vallance

Reviewed: 24 March, 2013
Venue: King’s Head, Islington, London

Lionel Bart, Quasimodo. Photograph: www.kingsheadtheatre.comQuasimodo, based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was a work close to the heart of its creator Lionel Bart whose greatest success was the celebrated Oliver!, based on Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Bart must be ranked as a major composer-lyricist, with at least two musicals, the other being Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, being among the catchiest and most joyous. Though he was prolific his career after Oliver! was problematic. He wrote two musicals, Maggie May and Blitz, each of which ran for over a year, but both lost money. They were followed by two disastrous failures – Twang!, which ran briefly in London, and La Strada, which lasted for only one night in New York. After that it was a tale of failed projects and aborted works – Quasimodo had a workshop staging in 1995, but it failed to promote a full-scale staging.

It is highly commendable that TheatreUpClose should mount a loving production of Quasimodo as the company’s first musical to be staged at the King’s Head in Islington. Bart sometimes referred to the piece as an opera. Would it be pretentious or find Bart over-reaching himself? Happily, Quasimodo is every bit as direct, melodic and enthralling as Oliver!, even though the production team (particularly director Robert Chevara) had to do some major construction work, such as changing the placing of some numbers, and editing Chris Bond’s libretto, though Chevara assures us that not one note or word of Bart’s music or lyrics has been changed.

Steven Webb, Quasimodo. Photograph: www.kingsheadtheatre.comBond was the author of the play Sweeney Todd, which inspired the Sondheim musical, of which there are echoes in Quasimodo (notably a sexually perverted figure of authority, and a beggar woman searching for a long-lost daughter who is under her nose). Both The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables are inevitably evoked – the disfigured hero, the Paris setting, the oppressed mob. Bart began writing his adaptation at the time of the 1968 riots, and at one time considered having a framing device of the students’ unrest, the revolutionaries forced to shelter in the cathedral, where they would enact the Hugo novel as a ‘play within a play’. Had Quasimodo been produced back then, would we have had Les Mis?

Zoe George, Esmerelda. Photograph: www.kingsheadtheatre.comThe production makes inventive use of the small stage, with ladders the principal motif, serving as cathedral ramparts as well as a drawbridge, and two platforms are also effectively employed. The cast of eight are mainly young, which is apt. Though most dramatisations have ignored the fact, in the novel both the misshapen bell-ringer Quasimodo and the gypsy girl he loves, Esmeralda, are teenagers, and they are beautifully realised by Steven Webb and Zoe George, who are appropriately heartbreaking, but also have a youthful sense of mischief – their playful duet, ‘Ring out bells’, in he tells her the names he has given his beloved bells, is a highlight. George also shares another of the jaunty comedy numbers, ‘Abracadabra’ (about the art of juggling), with the poet Gringoire (James Hume), and she has some plaintive solos, notably ‘Live and let live’. One of Webb’s most poignant moments is his sung plea to Esmeralda, ‘Don’t look at me’, as they play a game of I-Spy and he implores her to simply listen to his voice. He also has a passionate ballad, ‘Now is forever’, and his feeling for Esmeralda erupts when he is shackled and she is kind to him, prompting ‘She gave me water.’

The cast includes James Wolstenholme conveying the debauched figure of the archdeacon, Frollo, adored by Quasimodo, whom he took in as a foundling, but racked by wicked desires. Iestin Arwel is appropriately preening as the handsome Captain Phoebus, with Helen Sheals, Sean Paul Jenkinson and Melanie Bright providing sterling contributions. The performance seems all too short (under two hours), and the book could do with some fleshing out (motivation is not always clear) but it provides potent entertainment of which the company can be proud, and it can be thoroughly recommended.

  • Quasimodo is at King’s Head, 115 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 until Saturday 13 April 2013
  • Tuesday to Saturday 7.15 p.m.; Sunday matinees plus one on Saturday 13 April
  • Tickets 020 7478 0160
  • King’s Head Theatre

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