“I’m very ugly, don’t look at me. Am I not the ugliest thing you have ever seen?”
It’s a line that could have come straight from Phantom or Edward Scissorhands, spoken by a hideously deformed outcast condemned to a life of sadness and persecution, but they were penned 50 years ago by playwright Lionel Bart for a musical that was never produced in his lifetime.
Finally re-discovered and re-imagined, Quasimodo has just opened at The King’s Head, Islington, and it will break your heart.
The story is loosely based on Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris which gave the world one of literature’s original tragic figures - Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Bart, who had such a phenomenal success with Oliver! never took the musical to completion. That’s been the job of director Robert Chevara and writer Chris Bond.
Between the three of them they have come up with a story so poignant in its telling that it will bring a lump to your throat.
Steven Webb’s visceral performance as Quasimodo will have you reaching for a tissue. It’s incredibly moving and done, thank god, without the aid of prosthetics.
Instead the actor relies on make-up and a raw physical transformation to convince the audience of a man, not an animal, whose body is wretchedly twisted.
The boy, just 20 and deaf from a life ringing the cathedral bells, has slurred and faltering speech. The only moments of clarity are when he sings of his love for a young gipsy girl, Esmeralda.
Quasimodo, abandoned on the church steps as a baby, is raised by a debauched priest and condemned to a life alone. His grotesque appearance causes him to hide away, watching the day-to-day life of Paris’s poor play out in the streets below his bell-tower.
The story he sees is of a beautiful young girl trapped, and ultimately doomed, by the unwanted advances of men.
The King’s Head is a popular off-West End venue with a great pub, whose walls are lined with photos of stars who have played there, and music most nights, but it isn’t the grandest or largest of theatre spaces.
But its shabby appearance works in its favour for the production whose set is a collection of ladders and a scaffolding tower. The whole auditorium is utilised with performers popping up among the audience to play out their roles.
Webb is hugely watchable, clambering about the staging with the agility of a gymnast, and his scenes with Esmeralda are immensely touching. It’s difficult not to get a lump in your throat when he tells the girl that he’s too ugly for her.
There are great performances from the rest of the cast particularly James Wolstenholme as the salacious priest Frollo and Zoë George as the beautiful raven-headed gipsy.
Bart’s songs are sensational and it’s such a pleasure to think that they will finally be heard.
Quasimodo is captivating and inventively staged. It’s a wonderful evening’s entertainment – but be warned, there is a shocking finale that isn’t for the faint-hearted.