IN almost 35 years as a theatre critic I’ve only been brought to my feet for a performance on two occasions. The first time was 16 years ago when the junior section of AAODS staged Les Miserables and the second time was tonight at the opening of the senior group’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Maybe it is no coincidence that a number of the people on stage this evening  were involved in that memorable junior performance but whatever magic they created then was more than in evidence at the Borough Theatre tonight.

When I first heard that AAODS had chosen Hunchback to be their comeback show after several years away from the Borough Theatre, I can’t deny I doubted they could pull it off. After all it is a show which  not only makes huge demands of its principals, but unusually makes equal demands of its chorus.

This is not a show where it’s possible to lurk In the shadows of the cloister. It’s a show where every member of the cast is front and centre from its first notes to its towering finale. 

The talented chorus with Luke Williams (pic by Michael Hall) (Michael Hall)

I should not have doubted. Though not huge in number, this was a cast which oozed talent, as they segued seamlessly from chorus to chorus and character to character with each scene carefully and intelligently imagined by director Tom Mogford - himself an AAODS junior graduate -and set to music by musical director Sarah Fowler - who also wielded the baton in that performance of almost two decades ago

In their choice of lead they took a gamble. More akin to a Disney prince than a hideous outcast with his ‘tetrahedron nose’ and ‘horseshoe mouth’ Luke Williams is far from the epitome of Quasimodo and yet from the second he smeared on the greasepaint and donned the defining hump, he completely occupied the role bringing humanity to the inhuman and fleshing out a character which could so easily be two dimensional.

Luke Williams as Quasimodo (pic by Michael Hall_ (Michael Hall)

Equally powerful was Falesha Lewis as Esmeralda. With an enviable stage presence she is exactly what people mean when they talk about a triple threat - she can sing, dance and act and command a stage in a way which most amateur performers can only dream of.

Falesha Lewis (pic by Michael Hall) (Michael Hall)

Monmouth’s Patrick Callaghan is no stranger to AAODS and to leading roles with the company and is well known for his  tenor voice and yet with this performance he more than ever flexed his acting muscles. His composed and at times internal performance was perfect for the role of Dom Claude Frollo as he wrestled his inner demons and his desire for Esmeralda.

It would be easy to see the show as little more than a triangle played out by the leading characters but it would be nothing without the support of the other players and Merren Edwards as Clopin, Alex Brown as Phoebus and the entire cast of congregants did not put an immaculately choreographed foot wrong as they brought the stage to life transporting the audience from the heights of Notre Dame to the seedy backstreets of Paris.

Musically, the change from a live orchestra to backing tracks was at first strange but soon settled, with the tracks adding richness and tone to the immaculate harmonies of the congregants and the  choir.

There was a brief moment in the second act when the energy dipped and my heart skipped a beat for fear that the second half would not live up to the first but I needn’t have worried as the moment was as fleeting as Quasimodo’s happiness and served only to show how faultless the rest of the production was.

I would say that this was the best performance I’ve seen AAODS put on in many, many years, but that would not do it justice because this is quite probably the best production I have ever seen AAODS stage…and very close to being one of the best amateur productions I have seen on any stage.

If you only listen to one piece of advice I have ever given as the Chronicle’s theatre critic, please make it be this piece. Do not miss out on the chance to see this production because you’d miss out on the chance to hear Luke Williams sing Out There, the chance to hear Falesha Lewis sing  God Help the Outcast and the chance to hear an amazing chorus do what they do best. Pick up a ticket today - you won’t regret it.