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REVIEW: CUADC/Footlights Pantomime 2017 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

A dose of warmth and festivity to ward off the Bridgemas cold

Saying that this pantomime was more entertaining than the original novel is, quite frankly, a serious understatement (nothing against Victor Hugo). The curtains opened onto none other than the Notre Dame de Paris in person: a vivacious character sporting a cumbersome cardboard cut-out of the cathedral, and a pigeon perched atop the blonde locks of her wig. Guided by our eccentric, shape-shifting narrator (John Tothill), a show of shadows introduces us to the main characters of this tragic tale – which is not at all suited to a children’s pantomime (as is copiously and comically emphasised).

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John Tothill (credit: Charlie Eardley).

Meanwhile, medieval France has found itself in a terrible state, with the poor oppressed and the aristocracy stealing every ounce of power they can get. In the background of this miserable backdrop, we meet Quasimodo (Robin Franklin), the half-formed, hunchbacked bell ringer of Notre Dame; his only friends are Notre and his sidekicks, Gal Goyle and Garth Goyle. Immediately, the audience feels pity for this genuinely kind and thoughtful man, who due to his deformity, has been isolated in these towers by Master Frollo (Zak Ghazi-Torbati). This antagonist embodies everything we detest in a classic children’s book villain (it is no surprise that Frollo’s every entrance was followed by a roar of booing). He spurs in the audience an ardent hope that he will eventually be punished.

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Quasimodo confronts Frollo (credit: Nick Harrison).

On the streets of Paris, the traditional Feast of Fools is taking place, setting the perfect scene for the bizarre mix of personages to emerge. The drunkards, the rabies-ridden maidens, the talking goats (potentially violating Disney’s copyright) – at this time of year, all of them crowd the slums of Paris for celebrations. Through much lively song and energetic choreography, we learn the true plight of the poor. But, there is one character who aims to change this – the beautiful and powerful Esmeralda (Megan Gilbert) is determined to subvert the higher classes, and restore peace and happiness to the streets of Paris once again. This character comes across as a true proponent for change and advocate for equality, through the strength of her portrayal of a class (and gender) suppressed in this era.

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Credit: Charlie Eardley

Through some seriously admirable choreographing and undoubtedly many hours of dedication, the cast and crew produced a truly wonderful play. For me, the singing – which followed the storyline through passionate harmony and witty lyrics – was one of the dramatic highlights of the show. And who could forget the stunning stained glass dome suspended above the stage, the towers-on-wheels used as multiple props and Notre’s rather uncomfortable looking, yet praiseworthy, costumes.

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Credit: Nick Harrison

Thus, this pantomime ticked all the boxes: audience participation (attacking the villain with plastic balls), the pantomime classics (“he’s behind you!”), painfully cheesy jokes, plentiful puns and a significant dose of Christmas cheer. What did strike me, was the abundance of political banter that snuck its way into the script, and received – as is no surprise – some of the greatest laughs. Taking a step back from the purely theatrical element, allows us to perceive the critical relevance of the advocated morals, in our current society.

But let us not forget that it is Bridgemas. So spread some Christmas cheer, enjoy the prospect of what is allegedly a break, and try and grab a ticket to this pretty-much-sold-out pantomime!

4.5/5 stars.