Iris Theatre’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel is certainly an ambitious and refreshing take on the story – but can’t always make up its mind whether it wants to be taken seriously or not.
This latest production in Iris Theatre’s Summer season at St Paul’s Church shows how consistently brave, bold and ambitious the theatre company is when it comes to adapting some the best known and loved stories from around the world. But on this occasion, it doesn’t quite work.
Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is perhaps one of the most trickiest ambitions that Iris Theatre has staged, given the number of characters and sub plots and all the while trying to keep the children of the audience thoroughly engaged. Through his adaptation, Benjamin Polya adds comical elements to the drama infused plot in an attempt to please audience members of all ages. But while this lighter version of the story is entertaining to watch and straightforward to keep up with, it can at times undermine the message of showing compassion towards those who are less fortunate than ourselves as well. The silliness of the humour, while providing plenty of fun, can also undermine the drama in scenes.
It is a shame because there is a real flair and creativity to be found in Bertie Watkins production that keeps the story flowing nicely throughout – even if it feels as though it runs out of energy towards the end. As a promenade performance it works, engaging the audiences from everything from the festival in which a young audience member dances around with Quasimodo to throwing sponges at relevant moments. Thanks to Isabella Van Braeckel’s family friendly inspired set designs and Gregory Jordan’s atmospheric lighting design it is hard not to be swept into Quasimodo and Esmerelda’s story.
Given that this is supposed to be a family show, the production is actually at its strongest when it focuses on the drama that is unfolding – particularly during Esmerelda’s trial and Quasimodo’s punishment. But it is when the audience is taken into the church for the climax that really lingers in the mind after the show, effectively capturing the desperate actions of all the characters.
While the cast are all excellent, there is a slight issue that even with a simplified adaptation, the cast are all having to play numerous characters – and it is not always clear who they are meant to be at times. However, this being said Izzy Jones delivers a standout performance as Esmerelda – suitably feisty and compassionate with some lovely vocals during the musical numbers, Robert Rhodes as Quasimodo offers a suitably courageous and likeable performance and Katie Tranter is absolutely hilarious as the loyal Pierre.
As a imaginative take on a classic story it succeeds in being entertaining – but there are times when the adaptation undermines the story somewhat, particularly given its length and elements of dialogue that some younger audience members may struggle to sit through patiently.
By Emma Clarendon
The Hunchback of Notre Dame will continue to play at the St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden until the 1st September.