by Jethro Compton after Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo.
Southwark Playhouse Shipwright’s Yard corner of Tooley Street and Bermondsey SE1 2TF To 27 November 2010.
Runs 1hr 10min No interval;.
TICKETS: 020 7407 0234.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 23 November.
Nocturnal atmosphere wins the day.
No sooner has Belt Up Theatre finished its nightly cavortings with the surrealists in Lorca is Dead than they split into two for later-night shows. Quasimodo’s one of these, in Southwark Playhouse’s gloomy Vaults.
They’re definitely gloomy when Belt Up are there with this story of 19th-century France’s answer to the Elephant Man, a Cathedral-haunting hunchback, beautiful gypsy dancer Esmerelda, the handsome police captain she loves and the sinister governor who wants beggars and gypsies skewered, except Esmeralda, for whom he lusts.
Victor Hugo could be a patron saint of writers who reject easy-reading as a path to success. This is the opposite of light fiction. And Belt Up (who retain anonymity for individual contributions) go for the opposite of light, as screams introduce us to a dark, smoky chamber. Even the seats are swathed in black.
Candles provide pin-points beyond the table around which the action happens, while spears of light shoot across the acting area, sharp visitors in a prison of night. The world of surrealism seems swapped for commedia dell’arte as all – except the physically repugnant Quasimodo – wear sinister masks when not playing their main characters, as mocking creatures who clamber among the audience or suddenly appear from a corner.
Underscored sympathetically by piano, it’s an imaginative evocation of the murky side of 19th-century Paris and its dark human passions. Even the later stages, when motives are apparent and slightly more light intrudes, the Southwark Vaults display a cold, still secretive emptiness.
This is all needed, because the script is often a routine dolloping of narrative chunks into actors’ mouths. And some of the performances are vocally none too subtle – at moments tonally coarse and generalised. So it’s hardly surprising most impact on the ear doesn’t come from words, but the howls of animal pain from the desperate loving Quasimodo. This too is a fine physical performance, a body fitted awkwardly in its clothes, hiding like a reject under the table, face always avoiding contact in a double-twist, turned sidewards and down. As verbal drama this is stodgy; as theatrical experience it can be knife-edge and piercing.
Cast and credits not available.