The intimate surroundings of the Finborough Theatre provided an appropriate setting for this new adaptation of Emile Zola’s tragic love story.
Low ceilings, cramped interiors and narrow passageways are all vividly depicted by the excellent stage design of Laura Cordery, alongside some authentic costumes bringing to life Zola’s Paris of the 1860s.
Thérèse, the timid, put-upon shop worker, played by Julie Atherton, is silent for the majority of the first half of the play as she struggles to find her identity in a stale, loveless marriage and a claustrophobic tea shop.
She is forced to get on with her mother-in-law, Madame Raquin, brought to life in a strong performance by Tara Hugo, looking every inch the elegant French lady in her faithful bonnet and scarf.
A chance meeting with Laurent, a friend of her husband, unlocks the passion trapped inside her for many years and they begin a passionate affair. But her journey towards sexual and emotional liberation comes at a cost, and as their volatile relationship unravels, the illicit lovers come to be haunted by their joint betrayal of Camille.
In a second half reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy, they become trapped in their own web of deceit, behaving ever more recklessly and violently, motivated by hubris.
Director Nona Shepphard’s staging was most effective during the scenes laced with dramatic irony. For example, the audience couldn’t help but squirm in their seats when Camille rebuked Thérèse for behaving coldly towards Laurent, little suspecting that their own bed was ruffled from the heat of their inter-twined bodies only moments ago.
Scenes of dialogue like these were book-ended by the observant chorus, whose chanting and singing (accompanied by a live pianist) heightened the anxiety and tension at key moments of the plot, particularly during the story’s tragic denouement.
The musical elements involving the main characters were perhaps my least favourite aspects of the production. Although Ben Lewis, with the build of a rugby player, was well-cast as the strapping Laurent, his singing was, well, a bit like a rugby player’s. For example, one attempt at demonstrating brooding intensity backfired when he shouted out (à-propos Camille discovering the lovers’ secret): “But then if he found out and got annoyed, I would thump hiiiiiiiim!”
Meanwhile Atherton was always watchable in a brilliantly controlled performance in the lead role, with meaningful action noticeable in the smallest of movements: a knowing look towards Laurent upon their first encounter; and later, as the couple’s passion unfolds, the removal of her hairclips to reveal her dark, shiny locks in all their beauty.
The majority of the audience, numbering around 40, appeared gripped throughout, and fans of Les Miserables would be well-advised to take a look.