London’s excellent fringe theatres often afford the chance to see hidden gems and curios: seldom-performed pieces, which can catch on with many or fascinate the aficionado. Quasimodo, by Lionel Bart, receiving its premier 50 years after it was first written, falls into the later category.
The musical, which has only been workshopped until now, has parallels with another beauty-and-beast show, The Phantom of the Opera, and various adaptations of French epics, including another of the iconic Victor Hugo story, Notre Dame de Paris, that have proved successful. But Bart’s was a project that never took off, so all credit to the talented director Robert Chevara for finally bringing it to the stage. It’s a shame that Quasimodo will really only interest those mad for musicals.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with the source or the book, which has been shaped by Chris Bond and Chevara into a slick work full of neat parallels, satisfyingly far removed from anything reminiscent of Disney’s 1996 film. Just as much the story of the beautiful Esmeralda, who inspires the passion of nearly everyone on stage, it’s ambitious and engaging. Bringing to the fore the theme of sexual anxiety, with Quasimodo as an understandably confused young man, is brave and bold. Chevara’s central performers explore the themes well; Zoë George is a vulnerable orphan willing to hone her feminine wiles and the excellent Steven Webb plays the crippled campanologist with charm.
Chevara’s production is at its best in its darkest scenes, there are moments when you suspect he’s onto something, but the humour in the piece rings like a cracked bell and proves distracting. Performances from the supporting cast could be pared back. The set by Christopher Hone is a good idea but sellotaped cobwebs give an amateurish feel, and the costumes, with their mismatched styles, misfire.
While the band do their best, you can hear the score crying out for more – this music needs a big sound in order to be judged properly, especially the choruses. But this is not the late, often great, Lionel Bart’s finest writing, the lyrics are unimaginative and the tunes simply not memorable enough. Ultimately that, rather than any battle of Quasimodo’s, is the tragedy of the piece.
Until 13 April 2013
Photo by Francis Loney
Written 25 March 2013 for The London Magazine