REVIEW: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ – The Island Savoyards

The first show of the year for The Island Savoyards, and what a technical, exciting, visceral and emotional triumph it was. 

Many will be familiar with the Disney animated feature, of which this musical is partly based on. All the songs are present, but warning, you will find no Disney princesses here. There is no sugar and light fairy-tale magic. This Savoyards production sits alongside Jekyll and Hyde, rather than Beauty and the Beast. Here the captivating, thought provoking magic and social commentary takes us back to Victor Hugo’s original novel. It is dark in both staging and message. The audience loved it. This reviewer loved it. Appreciation aplenty on many levels…

The show is a theatre-lovers delight.  It is so technical. It has such depth.  Let me explain.  Let me exclaim!

The script, with the play’s topics of gothic architecture, religion, politics and immigration, are not exactly the subject of joyous Disney musicals.  The narrative of the show is cleverly relayed to the audience throughout the production. Dom Pope is the perfect choice to play Clopin the Gypsy chieftain, who leads the more up-tempo ensemble numbers, confidently introducing us to the Paris setting. From the outset, and not present in the animated feature, we are given the backstory of how Quasimodo came into the world.  When Quasimodo is first presented, he is standing upright, the ‘man’, and is then un-ceremonially dressed on-stage with his hunch, and the ‘monster’ is born.  Kudos and praise must go to Daniel Farmer as Quasimodo.  He portrayed the title character respectfully, with sensitivity.  Not an easy role.  A persecuted and punished soul was clear for all to see, but when singing, Daniel’s voice enabled you to see into the hope and dreams of the character within.

Daniel Farmer as Quasimodo

Played to perfection by Blue Brown, Esmeralda rescues Quasimodo from humiliation. Whilst not the purest of characters, her heart is true.  In ‘God Help the Outcasts’, one of many standout numbers, the audience was spellbound.  A beautiful song.  Blue has this natural ability to hold the audiences’ attention.  In a contrasting song, there was the urge to clap along to her introductory number ‘Rhythm of the Tambourine’

Dom Claude Frollo, the antagonist of the piece, is sinisterly played by Steve Jones.  Anyone looking for a lesson on how to act through song should look no further than his performance of ‘Hellfire’.  His venomous distain for the Gypsy population and his lusting for the feisty Esmeralda, clear for all to see, and hear; the timbre of his voice is chilling.

Captain Phoebus De Martin is sent by Frollo to track down Esmeralda, but he too falls under her spell. Brad Barnley delivers on the portrayal of Pheobus as both a (Prince) charming and strong soldier, who defies Frollo, preferring to be compassionate and righteous.  Brad’s stage presence is strong, his booming voice always finding the sweet spot in the auditorium. Bravo.

Esmerelda (Blue Brown) and Phoebus (Brad ‘Bravo’ Barnley)

The real strength though in this production is the teamwork that is on display. The principal’s performances are enhanced further by the Congregation (the ensemble) and the Choir. The Choir are always on stage, they may be physically placed in the background, but their presence is felt all around the theatre. Latin liturgy never sounded so good. The Congregation are probably the busiest of all. They are virtually on stage throughout, only going off to change in and out of costume. Playing the Gypsies, gargoyles, soldiers and Parisians, not only dancing, but also delivering spoken and sung lines intricately woven throughout the whole production. Some individual shout out to members who were awarded specific roles… The charismatic performance from Edward Nash as Jehan Frollo – we need to see more Ed on our Island stages; the voice of Emily Scotcher as Florika in the finale; and the hauntingly beautiful solo stanza from Friederike Skeet in the Choir. It takes skill, rehearsal and commitment to be part of this team.

It takes some organisational skill and vision from the creatives as well. Well done to Director Anthony Wright and Production Manager Andrew Woodford for not only rising to the challenge of producing this show but delivering on the challenge too. With little dialogue, the story is propelled in operatic-fashion through song, with complex musical arrangements, staging and intricate movement. And a sword fight for good measure.

The superb musical direction from MD Andrew Woodford and Assistant MD Kim Ball and the talented orchestra were clearly revelling in this score.  Bold and powerful. Hysterical choirs and crashing percussion rang throughout the theatre.

There was intricate choreography from Jake Alabaster, the dancing and movement was solidly delivered by the cast.  I particularly loved the ‘Topsy Turvy’ numbers, with a slapstick Clopin and swelling chorus.

Finally, I want to mention the lighting.  This is probably the best I have ever seen on the Island stage.  The lighting-desk seemed to conduct the action and the tempo on stage whilst painting an atmospheric rainbow throughout the production.

There are four more performances to see. If you love musicals, see this show. If you are not a fan of musicals, treat yourself, this is a masterful piece of technical theatre. The show programme tells me that the Savoyards next show is Guys & Dolls in October (one of my favourites.) But I cannot wait until then. I’m going back to Shanklin Theatre tonight and bringing the family along with me.

Get your tickets for the remaining shows here

Photos by Rodger Hooper


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