A major new musical on the London Fringe

A major new musical on the London Fringe

Robert Tanitch reviews Therese Raquin at Finborough Theatre, London SW10

Emile Zola published his story of sexual obsession and sexual depravity in 1867 when he was 27. It is one of the best psychological melodramas of the 19th century. The French critics accused him of writing pornography and dismissed the novella as putrid literature.  It is in fact one of the best psychological melodramas of the 19th century.

Zola published a wittily sarcastic defence in which he explained he was a naturalist novelist, no different to a surgeon dissecting a corpse. He was dissecting the animal side of human Behaviour.

Zola turned the novel into a play in 1873. It has since been filmed and turned into a musical. There was an excellent production by Marianne Elliott of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation at the National Theatre in 2006.

Therese (Julie Atherton), who is unhappily married to Camille (Jeremy Legat), a sickly, childish, limp mummy’s boy, has a torrid affair with macho Laurent (Ben Lewis), Camille’s best friend. The lovers decide to kill Camille on a boating trip, only to discover that the murder by drowning, far from setting them free, has killed their desire for each other.

Traumatised by his death they blame each other for the guilt and shame they feel. Their physical and mental breakdown is hastened by Camille’s mother (Tara Hugo), who suffers from a stroke when she realizes what they have done. She loses her voice but continues to “murder” them again and again with the hatred of her accusing eyes.

Nona Shepphard’s book and lyrics are impressive. So, too, is her production which makes clever use of the Finborough’s tiny, claustrophobic space.

Craig Adam’s exiting, complex and soaring score, all blood and nerves, tests the singers to the limit. At the beginning the frustrated, sullen and stifled Therese remains silent for a very long time and the chorus vocalizes her inner thoughts.

I would put this dark, adult and sophisticated chamber musical in the same league as Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins and Stephen Sondheim’s Obsession. I hope it transfers to a larger theatre so that a wider audience will be able to see it.

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