Review: 4**** The Hunchback of Notre Dame – St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden @Iristheatre

Tweetingit: 4* Victor Hugo’s legendary tale is given new life by a gloriously original production in a near perfect venue. Esmerelda has never looked or sounded quite so good.

A quiet sense of expectation grows whenever I walk through the gates of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden; a wonderful setting for an evening’s entertainment; provided the weather keeps its happy face on. We just about got that with a cool and breezy 21c. The excellent Iris Theatre might usually focus on Shakespeare, but the Hunchback of Notre Dame comes as a welcome departure. The Actors’ Church would seem tailor made for this classic story, no need for recorded bells here: or so you would think?

As the witching hour of 7pm grew closer I wasn’t disappointed as the church bells sounded with ominous intent. People were mingling outside patiently waiting for show to start; deep in conversation with beer in hand when the cast suddenly appeared with musical accompaniment. It was a lively introduction to the six strong company although they each took on multiple roles in the piece.

It stays reasonably faithful to Hugo’s story; beguiling gypsy girl Esmerelda (Izzy Jones) has many admirers; none more so than deformed bell ringer Quasimodo (Robert Rhodes). Her upbringing is shrouded in mystery and rumour. Sister Gudole (Darrie Gardner) has an intimate connection, but Esmerelda remembers nothing of her early life. Quasimodo falls hopelessly in love but has rivals for her affection; his adopted father Archdeacon Frollo (Ed Bruggemeyer) and dashing Captain Phoebus (Max Alexander Taylor) each have designs on the gypsy girl. Meanwhile, poet and musician Pierre Gringore (Katie Tranter) muses about love and life.

This production is refreshingly inventive with song, dance and cast members each contributing their party piece on guitar, tambourine, accordion and whistle. There was strong emphasis on audience participation which added to the feeling of inclusivity; however there was a ‘plant’ in the audience acting as stooge when required. I might pick the tiniest of bones in the way performance areas were organised. The convention at St. Pauls Church dictates the show moves around the gardens with periodic scenes inside the church. I naturally assumed the church interior would frequently feature; especially with Quasimodo as bell ringer and Esmerelda seeking sanctuary within the church. However, with the exception of the last ten minutes all the scenes were outside. Nevertheless, Iris Theatre is a proven master of outdoor theatre; even if the venue ultimately gains them an extra star.

Author: Victor Hugo

Adaptation: Benjamin Polya

Director: Bertie Watkins

Musical Director: Matthew Malone

Producer: Iris Theatre

Booking Link:  http://www.iristheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows/873600092/events

Booking Until: 1 September 2019

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