“When you peel the skin off Paris’s back, ugliness is brought to the surface”. I paraphrase, since I was too busy drying my eyes to remember the precise words. Pip Utton’s one-man performance is a rare and beautiful confessional in which, after 200 years of oppression, Quasimodo is given a voice more powerful than the bells of Notre-Dame. Esmeralda lies upstage, a noose curled around her neck, as the character viewed as half-human, half-beast tells us of his suffering at the hands of a seemingly perfect people. Utton’s delivery is painfully authentic, drawing attention away from his deformities and onto our own moral imperfections. Under Quasimodo’s hump is a universal outcast begging for acceptance; under Utton’s costume stands a national treasure.
Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most enduring images passed down to us, even inspiring the similarly iconic story of King Kong.
That romanticism, however, has also resulted in a myth that reduces Quasimodo to a cartoon image of a pitiful brute, muttering "the bells, the bells" and the ugly reject who somehow, Christ like, finds redemption in love for others.
Pip Utton’s deeply thoughtful play redresses that by probing the hunchback’s humanity and asks what is the real sympathy he should evoke, resulting in a moving reflection of what beauty means for us all.
Quasimodo is keeping vigil over the lifeless body of his Gypsy love Esmeralda (Caitlin Hannah McGuinness). With a quiet, focused voice and humanly crumpled features, this hunchback is no movie caricature and becomes less so as we learn more of his life, rejected at birth as an abomination, raised lovingly by the cathedral’s archdeacon but rejected by all others. He struggles to understand how the Catholic God can love him.
He now surveys the world from his lofty peak in the Notre Dame towers, with only the bells and gargoyles for company. His description of the bells as family members is comic yet heart-rending, while his often-poetic descriptions of life in the cathedral and the city help to place him within our own lives. We realise, for example, that his encounter with the gypsy woman is no coincidence but part of the ebb and flow of city life, that Paris’s beauty itself is skin-deep, for, when the night falls, evil emerges from the daily hustle and bustle.
As with every Utton production, there comes a point when you are faced with a deeper, often unexpected question. Here, Quasimodo asks why something as fleeting and subjective as beauty can block love and condone hatred, the most profound emotions we know.
As psychological as it is emotional, this play achieves beauty in its simplicity and plea for unconditional acceptance of every human being on this earth.
Darkly enthralling and utterly heart breaking, this arresting one man show is more evocative than any I have seen. Pip Utton masterfully delivers a hauntingly realistic portrayal of a man who ha s been so hurt by the cruelties endured due to his disfigurements, that he plans to fall to his death from the top of Notre Dame. However this poignant climax is only reached once we have been privy to Quasimodo's life story. Actor and script converge to form a character whose depth of pain, sorrow, and anger are almost overwhelming; each word is loaded with a depth of meaning that is unfaltering. A one man masterpiece; if you see nothing else at the Fringe, you must witness this.
Critical commentary on mankind's hypocrisy
Writer/actor Pip Utton follows his challenging one-man shows Adolf, Chaplin and Bacon with another deftly scripted and vividly performed drama, this one about Victor Hugo’s deformed Parisian bell-ringer. Taking the form of a monologue delivered by Quasimodo from his lofty lair, it’s the harrowing and moving story of his life, but also a critical commentary on mankind’s hypocrisy and cruelty and our obsession with skin-deep beauty.
“Almost all our desires, when examined, contain something too shameful to reveal.”
– Victor Hugo.
As we climb the tower to the Attic we hear a bell toll from above. Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame is waiting for us, his deformed body partly turned away as he sits watching over his beloved gypsy girl, La Esmerelda.
From between the gargoyles of the great cathedral of Notre Dame, the dark gothic heart of Paris, he peers out over the city that he loves, even though it has an ugly side. By night the streets are crime ridden and violent and daily witness public scenes of torture and execution. It’s a city that he knows well, but only at a distance. Ostracised by its mean-hearted citizens because of his appearance he must take solace in himself and he talks to them only through the cathedral’s bells, telling them when to pray, repent or mourn.
People have called him ugly for so long that even his soul now believes it. “Do you think I’m ugly, would you kiss me?” he asks. “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to kiss you”. He knows that to force himself on a woman would be wrong. Not something that seems to bother his adoptive father, the Archdeacon of the cathedral who has ordered Quasimodo to abduct Esmerelda.
Pip Utton has stripped back Hugo’s more complicated plot to leave us with what is essentially a meditation on the meaning of beauty and a tale of unrequited love. The themes of revolution, social strife and determinism merely underlie. Quasimodo is not the nearly non-vocal brute that is sometimes seen and he is skilfully allowed him to show that he is human, driven by desires.
It is beautifully crafted and his performance is absolutely compelling.
We climb down from the tower with Quasimodo’s words ringing in our ears – “Ugliness is like beauty, it’s only skin deep”. Back to the real world. On TV tonight - Addicted to Plastic Surgery, How do I look?, Ten Years Younger and Dating in the Dark.
British Theatre Guide
Bells toll and the lights come up on Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, bending over the body of Esmeralda. He talks to her, expressing his love and gratitude and, over the next 70 minutes, reveals his story.
Utton condenses the 450+ pages of Hugo's novel into those 70 minutes, capturing the essence of both the character and the story without any gaps which impede the flow of the story and without wasted words. The story of Quasimodo is there in its entirety.
That in itself is a remarkable achievement but even more remarkable is Utton's performance. He is one of the most chameleon-like actors working today. He doesn't just don a hump and a bit of facial make-up but becomes Quasimodo, giving him a body language, even down to twitching fingers, which is sustained throughout, and a voice which is totally appropriate.
The packed audience was gripped for the full 70 minutes, understandably for he really is the master of the one-man show and this is one of his best.
This is one of two one-man shows that Edinburgh regular Pip Utton is presenting at this year’s fringe. The other, a piece based on the life of Charles Dickens, sees him looking dapper and erudite as the famous author, this piece meanwhile takes him in a different direction, as Quasimodo, Victor Hugo’s hunchback of Notre Dame.
His back is padded and his face is half-masked in make up, but it’s the performance that holds the attention. Utton makes his audience feel Quasimodo’s pain, his utter isolation, his longing, his dreams.
The monologue is delivered from beside Esmeralda’s dead body, rope still fresh around her neck, and this adds to the sense of anguish and desolation. Most of Hugo’s novel is condensed into little over an hour and Utton’s every word conveys his struggle and sense of abandonment by the world.
In a dark room at the Edinburgh Fringe’s Pleasance Courtyard, a small audience are ushered to their seats with haste to the sound of chiming bells that denote the imminent start of a highly anticipated performance.
Darkly enthralling, and utterly heart breaking, this arresting one-man show is more evocative than any I have seen at the Fringe this year. Pip Utton masterfully delivers a hauntingly realistic portrayal of Quasimodo who has been so hurt by the cruelties endured due to his disfigurements, that he plans to fall to his death from the top of Notre Dame.
The set is stark, dark, but suitable for the nature of this one-man piece; the small performance space would give little to no room for movement if it were cluttered with any more than the plinth that takes centre-stage. Utton directs the beginning of his monologue to his beloved Esmerelda who lies dead on this white plinth with a shroud covering all but her bare feet, a fitting focal point and undeniably an evocative choice of set design. Once Quasimodo has focused his impassioned outpourings of grief on her dead body he then progresses in horrific detail to describe how he came to be in such a harrowing situation.
The narrative is frequented with well-timed resonate bell sounds, another simple yet effective design feature that proves to heighten Quasimodo’s emphatic description of his Notre Dame home. However no design feature can rival the prosthetics that make it look as though one side of Utton’s face is melting. Coupled with a hunched back and a host of unnerving gestures and movements, it creates an uncomfortably realistic vision for the audience who sit within touching distance of this depressingly deranged character. Utton’s superbly layered performance means that at times we view Quasimodo with disdain as he provides details of the horrific murders he has committed in Esmerelda’s honour, but within practically the same moment our feelings are transformed into sympathy when we are given insight into the traumatic acts of violence that were perpetrated against this poor disfigured man.
Utton’s use of linguistic landmarks within the narrative keep the audience well-informed of the changes in story, pace, character and tone throughout the piece, that mean we end up as emotionally war-torn as Quasimodo. Privy to this unique individual’s bizarre life story, we see actor and script converge to form a character whose depth of pain, sorrow, and anger are almost overwhelming; each word is loaded with an unfaltering depth of meaning. A one-man masterpiece, Utton sets an impeccably high standard for both writers and actors everywhere.