BWW Review: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden
In a world in which one's status as an insider or outsider has (seemingly suddenly) become of crucial importance again, it's a timely decision for Iris Theatre to produce this adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of inside and out.
Qasimido is shunned by Parisians for his deformity and the feared otherness that brings; Esmeralda is shunned for her gypsy blood and the power a beautiful woman can hold over men. Both outsiders are inside Notre Dame, the only place of safety - but for how long?
Of course, that's a harsh distillation of Hugo's epic novel, losing teeming characters and important themes, but focus is critical in any production like this. Over its two hours and 40 minutes, I lost the thread a couple of times, the multiple casting (just six actors play all the roles) requiring frequent mental recalibrations, as familiar faces return playing new characters.
There's quite a lot of reporting in too, sometimes in song, telling us backstories that we probably didn't need to have spelt out i such detail.
Benjamin Polya's script is often engaging, even if it does veer from Paris in the 1480s to California in the 1980s on occasion, but do we need all those characters, all that story? The promenade format inevitably slows things down (even if it does offer the splendid sight of a real church for the finale), so pace is critical - for which it's worth sacrificing a few side plots.
Director, Bertie Watkins, understands the carnivalesque quality of outside work - clear from the moment the actors introduce themselves as a faux troupe of jobbing Parisian troubadours - but I wish he'd made more of the iconic rescue scene, the film version I can recall with perfect clarity 40 or more years on, so indelible was its impact.
Robert Rhodes makes a deeply empathetic Qasimodo, his loyalty torn this way and that, as he wrestles with a world in which good people do bad things, something his naive mind struggles to comprehend. Late on he realises that he must, as a good man himself, also do bad things.
Izzy Jones has plenty of presence in those er... flashing gypsy eyes and fights with the best of them to defend herself. This is an Esmeralda who may be dazzled by good looks, but who also knows she has agency herself, and that she can use it in a hostile world.
There's good support through the hard-working cast, with Katie Tranter getting most of the comic relief / fourth wall breaking stuff as a zealous lawyer and hopeless ballardier. Those comic interludes were welcome, but we do need better signalling that we're back to a life and death decision for our heroine - the tone darting about somewhat unsatisfactorily.
Perhaps audiences will be a little less populous than on Press Night, which will speed up transitions, because this production is trying to do too much in its environment at the moment. It's the fate of the eponymous hunchback and Esmerelda that keeps us watching - and that needs to be front and centre, wherever we are in the lovely grounds on St Paul's Church, Covent Garden.