Lyric Studio Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 20 April, 2001

Even in productions of classic texts, Strathcona Theatre Company discreetly yet eloquently examine the issues underlying their collective existence, generating a complexity of response to their work which is in its way as rigorous as anything that the likes of Howard Barker could hope for.

Strathcona is Britain's foremost company for people with learning disabilities; the majority of the acting company in their production of Notre-Dame De Paris at the Lyric Studio Hammersmith were born with Down's syndrome. But Strathcona's approach is a world away from "very good, considering..." condescension. They clearly chose Victor Hugo's text precisely because it is concerned with judging by outward appearances and with society's stance towards those who look, sound or move differently from the majority.

Quasimodo (company co-founder Pius Hickey) is victimised and ridiculed by those around him, and even his beloved Esmerelda must overcome both revulsion and (barely any better) pity in her responses towards him. At every moment, the audience interrogates not just the attitudes of the world of Hugo's story, but of their own present-day society. Quasimodo is also given an "inner voice" (played onstage by Vincent Wolfe) to articulate more fully the thoughts and feelings which he shows for the most part mutely to those around him.

In terms of narrative, the company's adaptation (directed by Ann Cleary and Ian McCurrach) stutters a little from one set-piece scene to the next, but each of these scenes presents the central matter in a new light. Much play is made of the Feast of Fools holiday, at which Quasimodo is exalted precisely because of his "ugliness". Impressionistic ensemble work, with minimal props or set apart from a couple of chests and a skyscape cyclorama, alternates with assured individual performances from the like of Suzy Bebbington as Esmerelda and Sheldon Antoine as the concupiscent Archdeacon Frollo. The company's new apprenticeship scheme has produced a quartet of performers for this show, foremost among them the improbably named Elvis Presley as the poet Gringoire.

Seldom is a story so expressively inhabited without being turned into tub-thumping "ishoo"-based agitprop. Given the choice between this production and the huge, hollow West End musical version of the same story, there is no contest as to which has the more content, thought, emotion and dedication.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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