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The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Benjamin Polya, adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel
Iris Theatre
St Pauls, Covent Garden
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Benjamin Polya’s adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for this promenade production in the gardens and church of St Paul’s is a very free one that frames it as a performance by 19th-century Paris company The Theatre of the Left Bank. This troupe is led by Emanuelle (Darrie Gardner) who declares herself the best actor in France and introduces her five fellows. She will provide the narration that fills in those parts of the story that are not dramatised as the action moves through the streets of Paris to the square outside Notre Dame to the Place where paupers hang out, a courtroom and the other spaces designer Isabella Van Braeckel has created around the churchyard garden.

Director Bertie Watkins uses a relaxed, rough theatre style which happily accommodates multiple-role casting and helped compete against the background noise that came from the piazza at the matinée I saw (much noisier than when I’ve visited this venue in the evening).

That also makes it easy to involve the audience (and especially the youngest ones) in the action. They compete in pulling ugly faces in hope of being chosen as the Pope of Fools, have fun pelting hunchback Quasimodo with things when he is in the stocks and a barrage of missiles in conflict with the king. Audience become jurors at the trial of gypsy girl Esmerelda and someone is even recruited to be an intelligent goat.

Opportunities for music and humour are created and the dark side of the story isn’t harped on: despite murder and hangings, the emphasis is on having fun. It concentrates on the bare bones of this tale of once-abandoned children Quasimodo and Esmerelda, one ugly the other with a beauty that attracts the lustful attentions of priest Frollo and soldier Phoebus, and of Sister Gudule still looking for the daughter who was stolen and still guilty about the child she abandoned.

You have to concentrate to follow the story. It is easy to lose the thread in the hiatus moving between locations and much of the dialogue is pretty clunky, not just the verse assigned to self-styled poet Pierre (Katie Tranter) who gives up and becomes a juggler.

Showing the savagery of medieval intolerance of gypsies and attitudes to differently-abled Quasimodo becomes a condemnation of them and Esmerelda’s riposte to Frollo’s charge that she has bewitched him, that the evil lies in him, has a contemporary ring too. But, though it gets the audience on the side of Esmerelda and Quasimodo, this isn’t a production that will stir high emotion or create catharsis. There is little place for subtlety; what you need is volume (bar perhaps when the action moves inside the church with its difficult acoustics). The company work hard with every actor doubling and playing an instrument and pushing the pace (not least in their quick changes). When I saw it, they had to counter rain as well as the piazza’s distractions.

Although the cast don’t manage to make all the text seem natural, there is some strong playing, especially from Ed Bruggemeyer’s Frollo, Izzy Jones is a captivating Esmerelda, not just in the character’s singing and dancing but in the simple honesty her performance, and Robert Rhodes gives Quasimodo a touching innocence and a smile that makes the children like him: it is a pity that when he comes into his own in the final scenes he had to fight that acoustic.

Purists should be warned that this version isn’t entirely faithful to Hugo’s novel and at two hours plus interval it may seem a little long for younger children, but it sets out to be a family entertainment and, by the way, if the youngsters braved the weather it has succeeded.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton