Jethro Compton
Belt Up Theatre
Southwark Playhouse

Qusimodo production photo

This is an intense reworking of Victor Hugo's story sans cathedral bells that moves the story to a later date and makes Archdeacon Frollo a Minister of Justice and Captain Phoebus a returning soldier whom Frollo makes his Chief of Police. It is staged in the dark tunnels beneath London Bridge railway tracks on and around a table where hunchback Quasimodo is being under some kind of interrogation by the gypsies in their Court of Miracles and members of the audience become entrants in a competition to find the ugliest among them as a prelude to Quasimodo clambering out from beneath the table to be the obvious victor.

With actors donning white masks influenced by commedia dell'arte to introduce and comment on the action (and ensure we don't mistake them for the main characters they are playing), we are presented with three men who all love gypsy Esmeralda (Serena Manteghi) in one way or another. There is the cold and calculating Minister (Dominic J. Allen) with his own plans for controlling Paris, romantic and good-looking Capt Phoebus (Patrick Fysh), caught between pleasing his superior and saving Esmeralda, and poor Quasimodo who mistakes the compassion of Esmeralda for love.

This Esmeralda is perhaps a little too ordinary a girl to rouse such passions but the interest here is not in the rescue of the gypsy or her confrères but in the agonies of Quasimodo, twisting and turning, genuine affection struggling with an inborn violence fuelled by frustrated desire. Joe Hufton's performance captures the contortions of his thoughts even as his body shows us the agony with which he makes every awkward movement.

Writer Compton's direction makes this a thing of voices in the darkness beyond the candles which gradually gutter or get blown out, lit by small shafts of filtered light, the chill of the tale matched by the coldness of the space. Unfortunately it is played over a non-stop piano score against which the actors have to battle, not always with success. At times this leads to an over-pitching that is at odds with the concentration of most of the playing so that a psychological presentation is submerged within a piece of grand guignol that only begins to explore the strange relationship between the Minister and the poor ugly boy he took under his wing..

Run ends 27th November 2010.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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