Therese Raquin at Finborough Theatre

Penny Flood finds Emile Zola's genius is lost in a cacophony

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Taking a classic piece of writing and setting it to music is a risky business. True, it worked for Romeo and Juliette, which made a great opera, and for the movies Oliver and My Fair Lady (Pygmalion) and of course Walt Disney made a good fist with all the songs in Cinderella, but it’s something that has to be done with great care so the spirit of the original work isn’t lost.

Sadly, this isn’t what’s happening in this musical version of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raguin. First performed in 1873, it was considered to be Zola’s first major work, shocking and enthralling Parisian society, but that’s not how it strikes home in this version.

It’s a story of lust, violence, and guilt, set in a haberdashers’ shop in a seedy part of Paris. Thérèse (Julie Atherton) is trapped in a loveless marriage to her spoilt, selfish cousin Camille (Jeremy Legat) and bullied by his domineering mother, who is also her aunt, Madam Raquin (Tara Hugo) until she meets Laurent (Ben Lewis).

There are also a number of singers who act as a sort of Greek chorus to move the plot along. Because there are hardly any spoken words, it’s more like an opera than a play and that’s where it goes so wrong.

The voices are too big for the little Finborough, so the singing and the piano accompaniment are overwhelming and the harmonies become cacophonies. The music lacks variation, there’s a desperate need for changes of tempo and key to suit the changing moods and dramatic situations, especially when Therese and Laurent first consummate their relationship, and later when they are overcome by guilt.

Both scenes were rendered with the same heavy handedness as just about every other event, and with the emphasis on the music rather than the script, Zola’s aim to study temperaments and not characters is lost, as is the final denouement when her friends misunderstand what Madam Raquin is trying to write.

That’s not to criticise the performances, they are marvellous. Atherton’s Thérèse had deep unhappiness and later desire oozing out of every pore, Legat is perfect as the spoilt brat of a boy who never cut the apron strings, Hugo is fabulous at the scheming old woman and Lewis, with his good looks and swagger, convinces as the roué Laurent, ready to take advantage of a vulnerable young girl.

But as it stands, this version of the French classic work is turned into just one more story of a young girl in a miserable relationship having an affair with a handsome hulk and feeling guilty about it, anything of Zola’s genius is lost.

Thérèse Raguin continues at the Finborough Theatre until April 19. Book tickets online or call the 24 hour box office on 0844 847 1652.


April 4, 2014