Deaf actor to take centre stage in musical production of 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' in Essex

A deaf actor sharing the lead role in a musical says he hopes his casting will make the performance more immersive for audiences who rely on signing.

In its production of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Colchester Operatic Society has dual-cast the role of Quasimodo, with deaf actor Jestin Bartlett signing and acting, alongside Sean Hynes who voices and sings the part.

It is believed to be one of the first times an amateur performing group has taken on the production in this way, inspired by a Broadway production, and also the first time the role will be performed using British Sign Language (BSL).

Opening on 27 January for a two week run, it is Colchester Operatic's first show in front of a live audience since autumn 2019.

Jestin lost his hearing suddenly when he suffered a head injury aged 14. Credit: ITV Anglia

It is also Jestin's first acting role since he became deaf suddenly at the age of 14.

As a child Jestin had been a keen performer, but when he suffered a head injury and lost 60% of his hearing, it held him back.

Jestin said: "When I first went deaf, I didn't tell anyone. I was scared to tell people I lost my hearing. It was about three years ago that I actually started telling people, 'I'm deaf'. I stopped hiding the hearing aids.

"And when you can't hear half the music, can't hear people singing the song next to you, it's kind of an awkward thing to perform."

In Victor Hugo's novel 'Quasimodo' lives in the belltower of Notre Dame Cathedral. Credit: ITV Anglia

Locked in the bell tower of Notre Dame in Paris, in Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, Quasimodo is outcast and belittled for being disabled.

Isolated and misunderstood, he dutifully spends his days ringing the bells of the cathedral, an occupation which leaves him deaf and mute.

It is a character Jestin, who identifies as trans masculine, says he felt a connection to, and not just because he is deaf.

"I was treated quite differently growing up for being queer. So from both being queer and deaf I was treated very different to friends that weren't," he said.

Sean and Jestin have worked on their synergy to play to role together. Credit: ITV Anglia

Dual-casting the role has meant Jestin and Sean have worked hard in rehearsal to build their connection.

Sean said: "Normally you are just literally acting with someone opposite you. And with this, we need to kind of have some sort of synergy.

"Jestin needs to know what I'm putting into the to the the vocality of it, emotion-wise. And I need to go with Jestin. If something changes on stage, I need to be able to adapt to him."

Two of the performances will be fully signed by an interpreter at the side of the stage.

But with Jestin at the centre in every performance, people who rely on sign language will be able to concentrate more fully on the story.

After Covid-19 kept them off the stage for more than two years, Colchester Operatic Society is bursting back onto the stage with this show. Credit: ITV Anglia

Jestin said: "You're not having to flip back from the sign language interpreter and the stage. You do get to watch half the stage quite easily because this whole role is in sign language."

The show is part of Colchester Operatic Society's endeavour to become more inclusive.

Katie Cutmore, who is the group's first female chair, said: "We've really looked into improving our approach to inclusion, equality and diversity, and this was the prime chance to show what we wanted to do in action.

"We're just so proud to have Jestin on board and hope he stays with us for many other things as well."

  • 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', runs at Colchester's Mercury Theatre from 27 January until 6 February.