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Phil Willmott

Review: NOTRE DAME DE PARIS at the London Coliseum

Notre Dame de Paris Over 13 million people have seen this French rock musical across the world since its premiere in 1998. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy it too as long as you can accept it for what it is and understand that it was conceived to appeal to a broad international audience 20 years ago rather than the tastes of London theatregoers today.

As we stagger towards Brexit it’s vital that we become more internationalist in our appreciation of theatre from other countries if we’re not to become culturally isolated. Why not spend a couple of hours discovering a piece that resonates with our European neighbours and see if it speaks to you too?

The story is adapted from the novel THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by Victor Hugo who also wrote the book on which LES MISERABLES is based. A deformed young man, Quasimodo, is taken in by a bishop to live in isolated safety, high above the city as the cathedral’s bell ringer. Below everyone is falling in love with the gypsy dancer Esmerelda and when Quasimodo is tempted down into the streets by a carnival he becomes smitten too and is caught up in the violence of her competing suitors.

Last time it was here critics were dismissive of the recorded accompaniment so 10 live string players now embellish the backing tracks. Unfortunately sticking some violins into the mix doesn’t stop it sounding like the synthesised music that was popular in the 1990s. The lyrics got bad reviews last time too so for this season the show is performed in the original French with sur-titles.

Other than that the staging you’ll see feels very similar to the one which visited London amidst much critical sneering in 2000. Rather than update the lighting & musical arrangements to embrace fresh tastes and technology, as Cameron Macintosh is constantly doing with his LES MIS production, NOTRE DAME has seemingly been left alone.

I wish the creative team and producers had been braver, the musical could easily be updated to work in London and New York if they’d fix the issues which alienate English speaking audiences. The main reason we can’t love it as much as LES MIS is that they haven’t addressed the monotony of its non-stop angst.

Every character is introduced in a state of over-wrought emotion and stays that way throughout, in over two hours of non-stop power ballads and anthems. If they added some musical variety, some light and shade to the drama and some comedy and characters that developed and changed it would be far more satisfying for a British or American audience.

But there’s much to enjoy, notably the exceptional and world-class rock singing from the international cast even if the songs never forward the plot or allow the characters to develop. There’s some jaw dropping dance too from an ensemble dressed in 1990’s fashion performing some spectacular tumbling and aerial work.

I enjoyed it for what it is, a piece of 90’s Euro-culture but it contains two soaring anthems that are as powerful as anything in LES MIS - An opening hymn to an age in which Cathedrals dominate society and a closing song of loss and heartbreak that made me cry.

If the team could just update the drama and aesthetics that come in between, adding more variety of tone and texture this musical could have a far broader appeal for a long time to come. I’ll help! Consider this review my application!