Hunchback

Mon 22nd – Sat 27th August 2016

reviews

Lizzy Galliver

at 14:24 on 23rd Aug 2016

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The flyer for ‘Hunchback’ hazily commits to a “creative retelling” of Victor Hugo’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’, but adventurous directorial initiatives quickly fail to materialise. The Lancaster Offshoots squander the potential for creative ingenuity by presenting viewers with a theatre adaptation that takes away without really adding, well, anything. Innocuous but ultimately fairly pedestrian, the opening afternoon of Chiara Wakely’s ‘Hunchback’ passes the Fringe by rather quietly.

Pierre Gringoire (Josh Utting), pompous poet and self-professed “master of words”, is our narrator and protagonist. With a suitably theatrical demeanour and exaggerated story-teller articulation, Gringoire proudly takes us back to 1482. In the depths of Paris, citizens celebrate the Festival of Fools – but, wait! Interrupted (sometimes too slowly) by a guitar-bearing, grubby-faced rival narrator (Sarah Redford) – who goes allusively by the name of ‘C’ (the relevance of this letter is sadly never revealed) – the legitimacy of Gringoire’s grandiose tale is gradually dismantled. Meditating on themes of guilt and deception, ‘Hunchback’ unpacks some stimulating ideas about the culpability of dishonest writers.

That said, the innovative addition of C’s didactic commentary is a little too timid, preventing Redford’s musical talent from fully flourishing. It also remains insufficient to rectify unadventurous stage directions and the clumsy, wooden acting of most other cast members. While Quasimodo’s (Luke Morgan) wretched existence inevitably engenders a certain degree of pity, his portrayal is unremarkable. The entrancing Esmerelda (Abbie Jones), save a couple of competently choreographed dance scenes, is regrettably not entrancing at all. Frequent quarrels between the philandering Captain Phoebus (Jamie Steele) and his quick-tempered fiancé Fleur-de-Lys (Jeni Meadows) consist mostly of very loud monotone dialogues, followed by very loudly stomping off stage. The play’s many deaths, all perpetrated by one very plastic communal dagger, are disappointingly unexciting. While Archdeacon Rollo’s fateful fall from the Cathedral towers might be a little difficult re-enacted on stage, a less anticlimactic alternative could be found. Unconvinced by almost every character, I struggle to feel any sadness at what is usually a tragic finale.

What really lets the show down, however, is the complete failure to capture any sense of setting. While the absence of bad French accents and clichéd props is relieving, neither set design nor actors attempt to invoke medieval Parisian life at all. Aside from some ringing church bells and a few multi-coloured backlights presumably depicting stained-glass windows, Notre Dame – the epicentre of the classic tale – is all but ignored. While Hugo’s novel dwells substantially on Gothic Parisian architecture, ‘Hunchback’ again wastes the chance for creative stage management, instead falling back entirely on an already under-developed plot.

Superficial character development and poor use of space render ‘Hunchback’ a rather feeble attempt at revamping an enduring classic. While scope for improvement is certainly possible, the play as it stands offers an easy but potentially misused hour at the Fringe.

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Ed Grimble

at 17:24 on 23rd Aug 2016

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Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ (renamed in English as ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ to feed the British readership’s hunger for the Gothic) is an ambitious source text from which to build a stage production- weighing in at around 600 pages in many editions. The Lancaster Offshoots do make a commendable attempt to transport Hugo’s wonderful and towering novel, but they have perhaps overreached a little, and as such ‘Hunchback’ does feel underwhelming.

Billed as a ‘creative retelling’, the group’s most significant decision in their adaptation is the inclusion of two pseudo-narrator figures: Pierre Gringoire (Josh Utting), protagonist of Hugo’s novel; and the mysterious vagabond ‘C’ (Sarah Redford). This frame narrative allows ‘Hunchback’ to explore the power of the author figure, and the ways in which histories and texts are can be manipulated in the same way as fiction. The idea of the author is, in this play, one associated with control and deceit. Indeed, the play’s best moments occur when Gringoire’s narrative (the events in the past) is interrupted by C, and the two discuss the reliability of Gringoire’s prose, and his guilt and penance regarding the events of the narrative. Redford has a wonderful voice which is used in a haunting refrain several times during the play; although directors Aurelia Gage and Chiara Wakely could perhaps have taken greater advantage of Redford’s musical talents.

Where ‘Hunchback’ really encounters problems in its attempts to find creative solutions to the plot points in Hugo’s novel which are impossible to stay in such a simple stage space. Archdeacon Frollo’s spectacular fall from Notre-Dame is eschewed in favour of an uninspired stabbing, and Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmerelda from the gallows via the cathedral bell rope is of course omitted, but with no suitable replacement. This all contributes to a sense of flatness which pervades the play. This is a story which needs to be enacted in the bustle of the city, but the stage space during the crowd scenes is perplexingly devoid of people and extras. Similarly, the most fascinating aspect of ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ is how Hugo explores explores architecture: attitudes towards, and the need to preserve, beautiful buildings. Save for some gaudy par cans shining pink, blue, and yellow- presumably to simulate great stained glass windows, there is no attempt made at all to evoke the grandeur of the titular cathedral.

This aesthetic boredom is, regrettably, not salvaged by the acting. The cast are mediocre for the majority of the play. As mentioned, Sarah Redford competently handles the role of omniscient and enigmatic ‘C’. Utting’s Gringoire has its moments, but like many of the cast he is inconsistent. Luke Morgan’s Quasimodo elicits the bare minimum of audience pity, and Abbie Jone’s Esmerelda is somewhat lacklustre. Being a devotee of the source text, I really did want ‘Hunchback’ to be a success. It is shame then, that perhaps here the Lancaster Offshoots have been a little too ambitious, and rather than give us a Parisian epic the audience is presented with an uninspired re-hash.

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