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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame


Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Peter Parnell, based on novel by Victor Hugo with songs from the Disney film




Bob Hope Theatre, Eltham


Star rating: 4

This show was completely new to me and I am very surprised it isn’t better known because it has everything: strong plot, thwarted love, loss and good songs. I haven’t seen the Disney film and, very unusually for me, I have never read Victor Hugo’s novel. So I followed the story with bated breath, chuckling to myself that we seemed to be stumbling from Measure for Measure to The Yeomen of the Guard –  but we all know there are only seven stories in the world.

Artform brings a huge cast of thirty to this production which is impressively directed by Matthew Westrip. Many amateur shows have a few extra singers in the wings making sure that the ensemble doesn’t founder. On this occasion – because we are of course mostly inside Notre Dame in the fifteenth century – there is an onstage, mixed choir sitting, behooded as grey monks on two levels behind wooden pew markers as if they were in choir stalls. Sometimes they sing well but there are problems with sightlines and noses-in-copies so MD Hannah Ockenden-Rowe has to work very hard to keep it all together. But they look, and usually sound, suitably atmospheric.

Quasimodo (Daniel Lawrence) is born disabled to the brother of the future Archdeacon of the cathedral (Frollo – played by Guy Plater) and his Gypsy girlfriend. Because the child is orphaned, Frollo takes Quasimodo in and keeps him confined in the cathedral where his only friends are statues and gargoyles. Then along comes Esmeralda (Jani Nelson-Ferns) an attractive Gypsy who is kind to Quasimodo and captivates him but comes to love someone else (Phoebus – played by Shane King). Don’t go to this show for a happy ending although good does eventually triumph over evil.

I like very much the sensitive exploration of what it means to have a disability and/or learning difficulties – then and now.  Everyone is a human being with needs and feelings. This is also a piece about racism and intolerance. Why does the Church loathe the Gypsies so much? There are answers in this show.  And people like the chilly and chilling Frollo are all around us in 2024 so it feels very topical.

The story is told by the ensemble who speak or sing short narrative statements – rather in the manner of a Greek chorus. It means that everyone on stage has a solo role and they are all strong and convincing – whipping their hoods and robes on an off as they transform from monks into citizens or members of the Gypsy community. Choreography by Rochelle Bisson is outstanding. She creates intriguing tableaux for the gargoyles on the cathedral roof. When a group of monks stand in a line, they’re in height order. When the Gypsies dance it’s so infectious you want to leap up and join in.

And so to the principals and what a fine line-up they are. Lawrence, whose character is  physically created on stage with a back pad and dismantled again at the end, finds all the pathos and unhappiness in Quasimodo but also invests him with poignant dignity. And Plater, tall and icy in his white robes beneath which are urges he isn’t supposed to have, is a fabulous contrast. Both men sing beautifully too.

King is warm and decent as Phoebus and he too sings impressively. And I really liked Chris Hopkins as the mercurial, irrepressible Clopin who cheerfully leads the Gypsies and packs the role with fun and joy to create a colourful contrast with the dourness of the cathedral.

If, however, there’s a star in this show it’s Nelson-Ferns as the feisty Esmeralda. Gypsy she may be, but the character has more kindness, decency and principle in her than any monk or priest and Nelson-Ferns brings that out in spades. Whether she’s making friends with Quasimodo, falling in love with Phoebus or repelling Frollo she is totally convincing and her singing voice would grace any stage anywhere.


Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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