Thérèse Raquin continues at the Finborough Theatre, London until 19 April.
The French do seem to love their misery porn. With its tale of suffocating marriage, torrid passions, and murderous intent, Emile Zola’s novel makes Les Misérables looks like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Hardly an automatic choice for musical theatre, perhaps, but Nona Shepphard’s adaptation of Thérèse Raquin creates a dark, brooding world to create a production that is as unusual as it is intriguing.
From the outset, the suffocation of the titular Thérèse – trapped in a loveless marriage to her sickly cousin, serving in a shop alongside her mother-in-law – is evident, by having the show’s most well-known performer, Julie Atherton, frustrated and mute for the best part of the show’s opening 40 minutes. It’s a bold move, and one which works in identifying Thérèse’s ever-building resentment of the way in which she feels “buried alive”, as she sings once she finally finds her voice in the throes of passion with the burly Laurent (Ben Lewis).
The passion of Thérèse and Laurent’s affair, mirrored in the aggressive physicality in which Atherton and Lewis throw themselves at one another, is in sharp contrast to Thérèse’s well-meaning, effete husband Camille. Jeremy Legat imbues the cuckolded man with such an engaging, boyish charm that, after his wife and her lover’s actions precipitate his death, the family – indeed, the show – loses its heart.
This is in line with Zola’s story, as Thérèse marries Laurent, the source of her passion, only for the marriage to descend into mutual violence and murderous intent. But it also makes it harder for the audience to engage with the title character. Like Tara Hugo’s crone mother, Madame Raquin, we are left helpless and uncomprehending, watching Thérèse and Laurent disintegrate before our eyes without ever really knowing why.
Composer Craig Adams, who with his previous work Lift demonstrated an affection for tight choral work with multiple, overlapping lines of dialogue, finds the ideal outlet for such structure here. The confines of the Finborough’s space combines with the effect of a tightly knitted vocal ensemble, all emoting at full belt, to express the oppression Thérèse feels, whether from her loveless life or the similar claustrophobia she encounters when enslaved by her passions. This is not a show that contains stand-out solo numbers, preferring instead ensemble recitative, repetition upon repetition building up tension. The result is a show that sounds musically different from much of today’s musical theatre – but at the risk of understanding characters’ internal struggles that much less.
Shepphard’s lyrics, with emphasis on physical body processes of blood and nerves, serves to emphasise that both Thérèse and her lover are as much slaves to their physical sickness as Camille was. But with all their talk of blood pumping through veins, they also serve as a reminder that those bodily functions rely on a heart – and that’s the one part of this adaptation which is the least successful.