The late Lionel Bart, composer and lyricist of classic musical ‘Oliver!’, apparently tinkered with this unfinished musical for some 30 years. So it took more than a little guts on the part of director Robert Chevara and writer Chris Bond to tackle the piece, building heavily on Bart’s loose score of songs inspired by Victor Hugo’s hunchback of Notre Dame cathedral to create a debut staging.
Unfortunately, Steven Webb’s Quasimodo isn’t so much dangerously volatile as a confused, abused innocent: a limp (and a port-wine stain) can’t disguise the actor’s boy band prettiness. But while he lacks menace, he is hugely touching opposite Zoë George’s Esmeralda.
Some of the numbers, mostly in the second act, have the ear-wormy lyrical dexterity, fun and poignancy you’d expect from Bart, and Quasimodo’s mournful song to the gargoyles in the belfry is an instant classic: a beautiful ode to the uncertainty of love, handled brilliantly by Webb.
But, structurally, the show is scrappy. Relationships are introduced that don’t really go anywhere, while pivotal ones – like that of Quasimodo and the priest who saves him as a baby – are hastily plastered over, giving the impression of missing scenes.
Hugo’s socially reformist themes also sit uneasily with the production’s very ’60s take on an unruly Parisian underclass of vagrants and ‘sexy whores’ who mill around in spandex and red leather, looking like rock musical rejects.
Ultimately, flashes of brilliance save this show from appealing only to Bart purists. In that sense, it justifies its existence. But it needs more work to be a properly great musical. Tom Wicker