Lionel Bart’s work in musical theatre is usually associated with Oliver!, the most commercially successful production of his career, and Quasimodo remains one of his more obscure pieces of work. Unperformed and undeveloped, Bart died whilst in the process of completing it leaving an uncompleted score and script. With revisions and rewrites by director Robert Chevera it receives its world premiere in Islington at the King’s Head after 50 years.
The narrative is very much familiar; a disfigured baby is abandoned and grows up in the bell tower of a church in Paris, he falls in love with the gypsy Esmeralda and the population despise him for being different. Bart’s libretto and score are consistently strong; there are some beautiful melodies and lyrics, in particular ‘Live and Let Live’ in the second act.
However, the true success lies with Steven Webb in the titular role. His Quasimodo is sustained and careful, and with stunning vocals it is obvious why Webb has been so successful thus far. Quasimodo is deafened by the church bells and therefore has a speech impediment, something Webb tackles with sensitivity and a strange eloquence. Zoe George plays Esmeralda and has a beautiful powerhouse voice that completely fills the theatre. Her acting could be a little more naturalistic and her contemporary voice doesn’t gel completely with other cast members, but an incredibly impressive job for someone without vocational training.
The ensemble is relatively strong but in the confines of the space they can appear rather confined and misguided. The production elements are oddly out of sync with each other; costumes vary from traditional priest uniform to contemporary red leather and Converses in homage to My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The set, created with a series of ladders and cobwebs, is interesting but often unnecessary and unusable, but the platform representing the bell tower gives a strong dynamic of isolation and is later cleverly transformed into a gallows. The lighting is precise and again reiterates the idea of being alone, but I would have liked it to have helped to develop Quasimodo’s character. When he sings he does so without his speech difficulty therefore it is him speaking inside his head; these are his thoughts spoken aloud – much like Spring Awakening’s use of handheld microphones – and this could have been presented with a clear lighting state motif.
The only problem I had with Quasimodo was the venue; this is a show written for a full ensemble and an off-West End setting it is detrimental to the clarity of the piece. Even the small cast of eight seemed cramped on the stage, and with Quasimodo being such a physical character it needs to be able to cater for that. Dance sequences couldn’t be properly executed and the cast wasn’t large enough for full harmonies, and these elements would have just added new dynamics to fatten up the production. Saying that, the intimacy of the theatre allowed us to completely see Webb’s control over his role; his expression and care were haunting and enticing as he drew the audience in.
However, I do think this performance would be suited to a slightly larger house to really give this world premiere the performance it deserves.
Quasimodo is playing at the King’s Head until Saturday 13 April. For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head website.