The Hunchback of Notre Dame

AMI JONES is tired at you all for being so good-looking all the time.

Ami Jones Corpus Playroom hunchback of notre dame james swanton one man show pip utton Theatre victor hugo

Corpus Playroom, 6th-10th March, 9.30pm, £5-6

Directed by John Haidar

[rating: 4/5]

Cambridge people are so damn beautiful. They make you feel a bit sick sometimes, they’re so shiny and happy and healthy. The ones in the ADC bar are particularly bad. So it was a relief to get a break from all you chirpy, pretty bastards and spend some time with ugly.

And what a break. The Corpus Playroom, atmospherically dingy in its natural state, was spooky enough to force me and my American plus-one to hush and lower our voices upon entering. I’d never smelt a feeling before, but last night I did. The sad, tiny figure of Esmerelda’s body was eerie, oddly child-like, evoking the creepiness of the original Hugo novel.

James Swanton in his one-man role as Quasimodo is positively stunning in his grotesqueness, and gets the balance just right. The hobbling, rubber-faced creature before us feels just a little like it could be overdone when we first meet him, but within minutes the character sinks in and we’re hooked.

Swanton’s commitment to the role is fantastic. I mean to pay a huge compliment when I say that you will only really understand what I mean if you’ve seen this actor before or if you go see this show. To the very ends of his fingertips (literally) he is totally immersed, and has the blazing confidence that is only achieved by what must have been weeks, if not months, of tireless work.

Alas, it takes a tricky balance to get the one-man (or -woman) show perfect. And one-man shows do demand something close to perfection of their performers. You’re being asked to stare at one actor, with pretty much no set and props.

Funnily enough, the only one-man show which I’ve ever thought perfect was written and performed by the writer of this piece, Pip Utton. (In Adolf, which is fucking fantastic – see it if you ever get the chance.) Utton still makes a living touring his best pieces and keeps a cast-iron grip on the rights to those, only allowing performances of his less good scripts.

And at the end of the day, it meant that the script was totally outclassed by its actor. Which was maddening. I kept waiting for something to happen – I didn’t know what, but something. I wasn’t satisfied with simply a retelling of Victor Hugo’s story – I’ve watched the Disney film and Wikipedia-ed the original novel, I know what happens.

There were real flashes of potential – moments of skin-crawling lust, animal rage, religious guilt, moments which really had my skin prickling with discomfort – but these surfaced relatively early and then just kept making appearances. I wanted to be really, deeply, challenged: I know I’m quite shallow, deep down. I know I sometimes stare at the physically disabled in the street a moment too long. I left the theatre with those thoughts and secrets very much untouched. I wonder if Swanton himself – having witnessed his adaptation of A Christmas Carol last term – couldn’t have done a better job. But then Hunchback is a monster of a novel, and I haven’t read it myself, so maybe I should shut up.

Last night’s audience didn’t seem to stretch far beyond the usual handful of reviewers and some production team members. Fill up them seats, I urge you – otherwise you’ll have given up a wonderful display of commitment, energy, and talent.