The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a musical that takes you on a dark and emotional journey through a story set in medieval Paris. CentreStage’s production showcases a level of seriousness and tragedy that’s different to the well-known Disney version while keeping the sophisticated, epic musical theme with a live orchestra and choir performance. The story is driven by stellar performances of the cast and choir, leaving the audience sobbing at the heartbreaking finale.
The story of Quasimodo was a fond memory from my childhood was a rather light, sometimes comedic musical with a highly memorable main theme (“The bells of Notre Daaaaaaame, ooooh”, you all know the drill). Compared to popular Disney productions like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin, this particular Hunchback adaptation aligns more with the tone and style of Les Miserables, another musical based on Victor Hugo’s work. It delves slightly into mature themes that may not be suitable for young audiences (religious extremism/racism showcased through the show, and a particularly poignant sexual assault scene by Frollo, which was played very credibly).
Hunchback of Notre Dame’s story revolves around Esmeralda, a French Roma girl, who is accused of witchcraft by the troubled archdeacon Frollo, who also expresses an intense desire for her. Quasimodo, the bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, falls in love with the compassionate Esmeralda and endeavours to protect her by concealing her in the tower of the cathedral. The story ends like a true Greek tragedy – and will make your heart ache over the fate of the faithful Quasimodo.
The production was moved from the usual venue at the Bridewell Theatre into the London Oratory Hall in Fulham. And there’s a reason for it, which becomes very clear as you enter the auditorium. The stage design is truly magnificent, featuring two levels, three towering bells suspended from the ceiling, and numerous ladders and steps to use by the cast. It is truly a feast for the eyes. I was continuously enthralled by the intricacy of the wood-carved decor and kept discovering new details and charming surprises throughout the show. The set immerses you completely in medieval Paris, from the dark alleys at night to the enchanting Roma hideaway in the sewers.
The cast featured 32 performers as “Congregation”, a 30-strong Choir and a 14-piece orchestra – all together, the largest team on stage I’ve seen so far, who together create such a dramatic grand and awe-inspiring show.
The gorgeous light design (by Martin Walton) also adds to the religious atmosphere, providing an extra touch of grandeur. It plays a crucial role here – with slight set change and the way light is laid on the stage, we switch from the inside to the outside of the cathedral in mere seconds.
The costumes (brought to life by a combined team of 6 bright talents responsible for wardrobe, props and masks) are not exact replicas of the Disney characters, even if strongly inspired by the Disney production. With this sometimes more stripped-down style, little hints like Venetian masks guide the imagination towards who you are actually looking at – I have to say, a decision to make Gargoyles more human by not turning them into cartoonish characters was brave but extremely fitting. And a full choir wearing monk robes was the highlight – I couldn’t stop myself from snapping a cheeky picture before the show started.
The cast changed costumes multiple times during the show, but there was one particular transformation that happened on the stage, that stood out. The decision to bring Quasimodo on the stage as a man just like any other, and transform him into a “monster” by strapping a pillow on his back and painting scars on his face while in bare sight for the audience to see, was particularly outstanding. All this, while accompanied by the lyrics “What makes a monster, what makes a man”, made this scene a powerful statement and a touching symbol of the whole show.
The monumental score of the production is filled with choir themes and an opulent orchestra that takes your breath away. The choir is located on two sides of the auditorium, creating a beautiful, emotional mood during the show, and delivering fantastic sound no matter your seat location. However, the sound design and microphone usage for the cast and ensemble on stage was occasionally challenging, with some microphones failing to switch on time or, at certain moments, the choir overpowering the actors’ lines due to microphone settings.
The show is a huge-scale production, and the challenge of blocking the number of people on stage is evident, especially during crowded, energetic songs like “Topsy Turvy pt 1”. To me, in this production, the slightly more static moments that captured the energy with tone and facial expressions were some of the most memorable – like “In a place of miracles”.
Esmeralda’s performance as the lead character was outstanding, stealing the show with her passionate, free-spirited portrayal of a strong woman – a fantastic performance by Suriyah Rashid. Frollo’s character, performed by Peter Shatwell, successfully showcased a transformation of emotion and character within just minutes (during his prologue in the first act), all accompanied by a highly impressive display of vocal prowess. Shatwell created a villain that was scarred for life, with clear motivations for the future. He was not just an “I want to rule this city” kind of villain, he was a character we could truly understand and feel sorry for.
Stephen Mitchell as Quasimodo took a moment to warm up, but once he got to his powerful solos, he totally owned the stage. Mitchell’s emotions were palpable as he performed the touching “Out There,” allowing the audience to empathise with his character’s solitude and pain. A proper tour de force of musical acting!
CentreStage’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is a spectacle to behold, a musical that transports its audience to another time and place with its grand scale, stunning set design, and emotive music. It is an ambitious production that tackles mature themes with conviction, delivering a haunting and powerful story that lingers long after the final curtain call. Fans of the original novel by Victor Hugo will appreciate this darker, more mature take on the story, while those looking for a traditional, family-friendly musical may find themselves surprised by the depth and complexity of this production. Well done, CentreStage team, you’ve done it again!
Tuesday 11th – Saturday 15th April 2023
The London Oratory School, Seagrave Road, London SW6 1QA
Director: James-Lee Campbell
Assistant Director: Alexis Rose
Musical Director: Mark Smith
Choreographers: Peter Stonnell & Sara Ramirez
Producer: Giles Burden
Company Manager: Rob Greenwood
Lighting: Martin Walton
Sound: Henry Whittaker & Adam Coppard
Tech Production Manager: Mark Steward