Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 25 March 2013

Quasimodo

King's Head Theatre ⋄ 20th March - 13th April 2013

Lionel Bart’s long-delayed musical.

Stewart Pringle

Like everything in the life and works of Lionel Bart, there’s a touch of the fairy tale to Quasimodo, a sprinkling of myth and of legend. This legend began 50 years ago, when Bart was riding high as the undisputed king of the British musical, whose East End meets West End masterpiece Oliver! was still packing out houses, and whose follow up, Blitz! looked to be almost as successful.

If Bart is to be believed it was an unfortunate tangle with a sweater that gave him the inspiration to make his next great musical a version of Victor Hugo’s classic Notre Dame de Paris. Catching sight of himself half-in and half-out of a jumper, Bart alleges that the image of the hunchback, half-remembered from scraps of the Charles Laughton or the Lon Chaney movie, appealed to him instantly. Unfortunately, though songs and scraps of the book were written, the impetuous author instead turned his attention to Maggie May, and then to the disastrous Twang!!, the misfire that undid his career and initiated the ‘and back to rags’ coda that occupied so much of the rest of his life.

Quasimodo has languished in obscurity ever since, Bart tinkered with it incessantly until his early death in 1999, but apart from a partial workshop performance for industry insiders in 1995 barely a scrap of it has ever been heard or performed. Director Robert Chevara and writer Chris Bond (he of the crushingly camp Sweeney Todd melodrama) have done the history of the British musical a phenomenal service in giving Bart’s long-delayed musical its premiere. And while it’s far from a lost masterpiece, it’s no cabinet curio either – you don’t need to be a Bart completist to revel in this slightly wonky but often raucously entertaining Parisian gothic.

The action follows the novel with surprising tenacity, expanding on many aspects that had been omitted from or heavily submerged in the Laughton and Chaney incarnations. This means that Esmeralda is given considerable prominence, as she is courted by Phoebus, the captain of the guard, lusted after by the villainous Claude Frollo, and adored from afar by the deformed Quasimodo. Unfortunately, it also means that the subplot involving a fourth suitor, the poet Pierre Gringoire, is also heavily featured. It all amounts to at least one lover too many – there are solid reasons for why the ‘love pentagon’ has failed to make much headway as a dramatic device.

The plot also contains a number of strange holes, moments when the show’s ragged history is all too apparent through writer Bond’s cautious repair work. The character of Frollo is entirely under-developed, given no great moment of lusty epiphany, no great solo to cement him as the key antagonist. The world of the Court of Miracles, with its fierce leader Clopin, the King of Truands, is also hastily brushed over. The more sexually threatening aspect of Quasimodo has been all but removed, he’s pure lovelorn innocent, but elsewhere the approach to sexuality smacks of the less reconstructed excesses of the 1960’s. The term ‘sexy whore’ is thrown about with uncomfortable abandon, and the free-wheeling blend of raunch and simmering violence feels salaciously seedy rather than insightful. Sanding off the rougher edges of Hugo’s novel is a natural concession to the musical form, and worked nicely in the case of Oliver!, but by trying to have it both ways, and translating complex sexual power-play into Soho sexiness, Bart has left some unappealing moments to sour his otherwise jaunty concoction.

The final effect is rather ramshackle, and while it’s true that Quasimodo never outstays its welcome, it’s clear that had he worked the piece to completion, Bart had a great deal more to add. Bond and Chevara could have afforded to be considerably braver in their reconstruction work, while it’s a fascinating curiosity to see the bare bones that Bart had created, the production would be immensely more satisfying if further work had been added to flesh it out. It’s reported that when Bart passed an early version of the book to Noel Coward, the elder writer replied ‘Brilliant, dear boy, but were you on drugs when you wrote it? It seems a little bit abstract here and there’, and while the core story is in fact generally clear, its meagre plotting and characterisation make for something of a tumultuous evening.

As solid as it was, however, nobody left Oliver! harping on the book, and here as there it is Bart’s dazzling wit and talent as a lyricist and tunesmith that send a tingle down the spine. Bart was rarely consistent in his brilliance, and the brutal truth is that there may be more misses here than hits, but there are real treasures among the dozen or so numbers in Quasimodo. The second act is the punchier by far, aided considerably by the beautiful number in which Quasi introduces Esmeralda to his bells, that has tunes and rhymes as potent and ear-worming as anything in Bart’s repertoire (‘Introducing you to Jacqueline/Jacqueline s’inquiring how you’ve been’). There are plenty of others, including the rollicking ‘King for a Day’, which are similarly packed with the lyrical audacity that made his name. It’s not all good news, there are moments where the sort of lysergic lethargy that fucked Twang!! so royally rears its hippy head: allusions to ‘fissures [that] live in reality’ are yawn-worthy, you can almost hear the sugar cube dissolving on Bart’s tongue muffling his lexical virtuosity.

In tone and atmosphere Quasimodo is about as Parisian as a jellied eel, but it’s not quite the music hall knees up that you might expect from the writer of ‘Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be’. The influence of great US musicals can be heard in several of the numbers, with one in particular (the delightful ‘AbraCadabra’) actually coming off like a proto-Stephen Schwartz number. Bart’s unproduced score also exists in a curious relation to Alan Menken’s for the 1996 Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The similarities, which run from correlations in the themes and structure of musical numbers, with Bart’s ‘The Steps of Notre Dame’ functioning as a less bombastic version of Menken’s ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’, to drastic melodic and lyrical similarities such as those between Bart’s Fool’s Day anthem and Menken’s ‘Topsy Turvy’, are too persuasive to be written off as mere coincidences. I’d bet my hat on Menken having access to Bart’s score in some form when he sat down with Schwartz to score the Disney, after all, if an unproduced score existed by a true master, what composer could resist a listen? It’s by no means a case of direct plagiarism, merely evidence that Bart’s work developed a verdant life of its own even in the absence of a definitive version from its creator. Incidentally, if Bart had found a number for Frollo to half-way match Menken’s incredible ‘Hellfire’, Quasimodo would be a far more dramatically persuasive piece.

Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Photo: Francis Loney

Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Photo: Francis Loney

There are few weak links in the cast, with chorus numbers pounding along with gusto, though Steven Webb shines brightest of all. Webb is a delicate and tragic Quasimodo, his obvious physical strength balanced against a child-like vulnerability. His movements are at once graceful and lolling, and he struggles to speak and to interpret. When he sings, his limitations seem to fall away, creating a disjunction which is occasionally distancing, but more frequently feels to be an eloquent device to demonstrate his soul’s ability to sour beyond the restrictions and grotesqueness of his physical form. Zoë George sings the role of Esmeralda with great skill, though her performance is hampered by the oddities of the book. Elsewhere, James Wolstenholme never fully convinces as Frollo, his top-end lacking the belt required to give his sparse moments in the spotlight the necessary clout, and despite the best efforts of a sugar sweet James Hume, Pierre Gringoire feels consistently dispensable.

Chevara has generally done an excellent job of wrestling this odd beast of a musical into the diminutive Kings Head Theatre, and if the production values are a tiptoe behind what’s come to be expected from the theatre’s impressive recent offerings, this is amply excused by the ambition of bringing such a difficult and incomplete work to the stage. The five-piece band acquit themselves powerfully, hitting the sweet-spot volume-wise in a difficult venue, a trick repeated by Lee Proud’s economical choreography. Christopher Hone’s set is partially effective, its starburst of ladders cleverly emulating the spokes of Notre Dame’s great rose window, while providing the cast with opportunities for the sort of acrobatics that are usually in understandably short supply in the Kings Head. The addition of shrink-wrap spider webs is less convincing, and Seth Rook Williams lighting design feels rather mean. Rather than exploding outwards like light through stained glass, the set is often left looking incomplete. Appropriate to the state of the book, perhaps, but it feels tantalisingly close to something better.

So it’s not quite Happily Ever After for Quasimodo, it’s not the fairy tale ending it might have been. Bart once said of his terminally unloved pet project, ‘Almost every producer in the world is scared of it. Maybe they’ll put the show on after I die and see what a winner it is.’ Maybe it’ll storm the West End? Broadway? The World? Maybe it’ll be a beautiful, golden epilogue to a life that got twisted in the middle and stayed that way? Maybe. But not yet. Like all good stories, the truth is more complex, and success for Quasimodo will have to be won with hard graft. Chevara and his team are the brave souls of Bart’s pipe-dream, they’ve done a tremendous job in bringing his show this far, and the result is a superb night out for fans of Bart and lovers of musical theatre alike, but there’s till work to be done. The story’s not over yet. Quasimodo is still unfinished.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Quasimodo Show Info


Directed by Robert Chevara

Written by Lionel Bart

Link http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/main.html

Running Time 2 hrs 5 mins (inc 20 min interval)

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