There was a time when I was a lad when Lionel Bart was everywhere. Children’s Favourites every Saturday was sure to have Tommy Steele singing ‘Little White Bull’ (or, as he put it, ‘Li’ew white Buw); Two-Way Family Favourites on Sunday would have ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be’. His pop songs were often what were called in an earlier age Novelty Numbers; they were always fun. And then there was ‘Oliver!’ – and ‘From Russia With Love’ – it seemed there were no limits to this entirely self-taught composer who had dragged himself up from grinding East End poverty, who could only pick out a tune with one finger, but who was a genius with a tune and had a natural feeling for the shape and lift of a lyric.
Then in the mid to late 60s it all went pear-shaped. Two spectacularly disastrous flops – ‘Twang!’ and ‘La Strada’ – left him bankrupt, since he ignored the old adage, “Never put money into your own shows.” There were enough drugs to fry the brains of a lesser man, a lot of alcohol – and “Quasimodo”. Never completed, never properly orchestrated, it needed the spur of the production it never had for Bart to pull it together. If indeed he could have. Given the success of the other Victor Hugo Blockbuster, ‘Les Miserables’, it might seem that a British musical of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ would be a shoe-in. No doubt the powers-that-be at the Kings Head calculated on a kind of success-by-osmosis. But the powers-that-be are wrong.
For Bart is the poet of family and community, as well as of good times. His best work is characterised by a big heart and warmth. His yearning ballads are for outsiders wanting to break into the charmed circle. “Quasimodo” plays to none of his strengths. The “family” is Parisian low-lifes who have none of the charm of Fagin’s urchins, being characterised by cruelty, stupidity and undifferentiated lust. Esmeralda the gypsy, object of lust and yearning for all three male leads, is clearly intended as a variant of Nancy in ‘Oliver!’, but is given little chance to express her humanity in the book, and Zoe George’s performance never transcends the brassy.Esmeralda has no less than four male suitors in the confused and incompetent book: Frollo, the cleric who saves the hideous foundling, a Captain of the Guard (only there’s no Guard here, just the scrim of the plebs), Pierre a poet, and Quasimodo himself. In this version and this production we largely have to take her attractions on trust. All four suitors have tenor-to-high-tenor ranges (whether this is what the songs were written for is another matter). The effect is both wearing on the ear and to make it sound like a Lloyd Webber. The hybrid is distinctly odd, as if different actors are appearing in different shows. The dislocation is heightened by the wispy, fragmentary nature of some of the songs, and some quite outré harmonies, which are certainly not Bart as we know him. (Exactly what is Bart and what is the work of the current team is not clear.)
If there is any virtue in the show, it must be in what of Bart’s genius comes through. Musically it is way below par, but lyrically there are flashes of the kind of disciplined hutzpah which is Bart at his best. One of his unobserved merits is the intricate internal rhyme schemes which bind a song but which he can make seem perfectly natural. Think “No need to be uppity, There’s a cuppa tea for all,” in “Oliver !” That’s in evidence, as is Bart’s gift of longing, in ‘She Gave Me Water’ and ‘If Only I Were Made of Stone’, both ballads for ‘Quasimodo’.
Any musical about Quasimodo has to deal with the central problem of how to make a character with a speech impediment and learning difficulties burst into articulate song, if indeed he is to sing. Bart simply ignores it, for all songs are Bart songs with little regard for characterisation. Quasimodo articulates lyrics which would not disgrace Noel Coward [“Tintinnabulation”??!!] The effect is as if Ricky Gervais’s Derek were suddenly to sing a Sondheim number.
Bart and Coward were friends, and in many ways Bart can be seen as a Jewish, working-class Coward. Apparently he showed some of the score of “Quasimodo” to Coward, who said, “Brilliant, dear boy – but were you on drugs when you wrote it?”
The wretched mismatches are compounded by a lazy production which doesn’t iron out inconsistencies in the script. Characters who sing together in one scene later ask each other ‘Who are you?’ Quasimodo, who is touchingly deaf in his trial scene, later discovers a convenient ability to lip read in order to talk to Esmeralda; which presumably only works if the lip-reader is looking at the speaker…. A rag doll baby who is doted on at one moment is swung round like a clutch bag the next. And if characters are meant to demonstrate their circus skills, surely it is not too much to ask them to learn to juggle with three balls.
Everybody is costumed in a kind of sloppy cyberpunk which does nothing to locate the action. The set, an effective and economical affair of ladders and clingfilm, is underused. The piano currently overbears the voices, and the offstage choruses are too quiet. Even Quasimodo’s make-up, more Freddy Kruger than Charles Laughton, is a laughable miscalculation.
Completism – the desire to unearth every fragment an artist created – rarely does the artist any favours. Now will someone please rediscover Bart’s real masterpiece, which is ‘Blitz!’