THEATRE / Twisted designs: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Leeds

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The Independent Culture
Last autumn, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch staged a deliriously funny and inventive production of Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters at West Yorkshire Playhouse. For the first five minutes of their new adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it looks as if they are about to delight us yet further.

Crouch's set again uses the two dimensions of the flattest of flats, invoking Notre Dame as a kind of photocopy derived from grainy black-and-white postcards. Far up-stage, a door opens and slowly six mobile gargoyles, leathery, fantastical, dragon- winged creatures, snarl and coo their way towards us.

Like toys climbing furtively out of their toy-box at night, these monsters have crept from their ledges. Initially terrifying, by the time they have poked their fearsome digits over the footlights they have become almost cuddly; and as they raise their heads to reveal the human faces beneath, and begin wittily to narrate the story-so-far, they are nearly pets.

It's a brilliant opening - a coup for Crouch's costume design - but, as the evening progresses, it becomes clear that the show has peaked too soon. Despite the clarity of its design, this adaptation yaws uncertainly between moods and styles. The producers' signature device of mobile furniture and buildings this time puts the whole cathedral on castors, with Quasimodo clinging to its towers; but in the small Courtyard Theatre, the effect is disappointingly modest. It would have benefited from the larger auditorium next door.

The show flirts with audience participation through a cod-poet narrator (Niall Ashdown) but this is intermittent and verbally flat. In fact, overall, the relationship between the elements of send-up and melodrama is uneasy. Only with the final image, when Esmeralda once more has the noose put round her neck, does the drama take command, and her final, gentle absorption into the demonic stonework is beautifully done.

But it is a special pity that the work's central interest - the beauty-and-the-beast motif - is given so little attention. The opening so concisely introduces the idea of monstrosity's ambivalence that there's an inevitable sense of disappointment when it's not explored.

Martin Gent (Quasimodo) and Kate Wilton (Esmeralda) plainly have the ability to realise this dangerous relationship, but their scenes together are brief and underwritten. 'Truly horrible, isn't it?' Quasimodo says of his face, when he confronts Esmeralda for the first time. Such a delicate moment, in a show that otherwise does not allow a flicker of understatement, makes one only too aware how much dramatic interaction has been sacrificed to design.

To 21 May (0532 442111)

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