PITY AND TERROR: A PUB PREMIERE OF RARE QUALITY
The Finborough has done it again: produced the most remarkable new musical of the year, shudderingly emotional, harsh and passionate, fit to make your hair stand on end. Pulsing recitative, dissonant screams, lyrical yearnings and bitter wit mark a tale set in sombre chiaroscuro, a nightmare made visible. Nona Shepphard, who writes and directs with Craig Adams’ Kurt-Weillish score, describes her newest work as “A radical adaptation”, and so it is.
But for all its headlong, fractured form it is also truer to the original than a more ploddingly traditional version. Emile Zola’s 1867 novel is one of the most terrifying tales of conscience and comeuppance in world literature: I remember how the 1980 BBC dramatization scared the bejasus out of us in our first married flat (it seems to have been considered too alarmingly morbid to repeat.) The story is uncomplicated: a domineering mother marries her orphan niece off to her own sickly, selfish son Camille, keeping her pent up, bored and silent, in a cramped shop in the Pont-Neuf. Therese falls in love with Camille’s old schoolfriend Laurent, and they contrive to drown Camille on a boating trip. Persuaded to marry – pretending reluctance – they hallucinate that their marriage-bed is occupied by the corpse, and are driven to madness, hatred and suicide.
The tale’s power is in the explosive passion of Therese’s escape from the clawing claustrophobia of her life, to the worse imprisonment of remorse. It breathes he dank clamminess of the dark Seine beyond, Zola’s pitiless view of humans as struggling animals and his obsession with cadavers, humans as bags of bones, blood and tortured nerves. Its deeper horror comes with the fearful detail of the domineering old mother succumbing to paralysis, hearing the truth of Camille’s death and sitting helpless with her murderous eyes fixed on the guilty couple’s endgame.
All this power is gathered up by Sheppard’s vigorous lyrics, concentrated and flung at us in two breathless hours. The language is terrific, whether mockingly witty, flickering with passion or steaming with disgust as Therese recoils from her cousin-husband “smelling as stale as an invalid child”. A chorus of “river-women” murmur Therese’s inner thoughts as she stays silent and impassive until her first crazed scream of desire. The mother’s Thursday-night dominoes sessions with dullard friends become a jerking zombie Totentanz of pinched, shrunken faces. Laura Cordery’s design of beams and shelves evokes the claustrophobic world of the shop; Laurent’s search of the morgue is staged with the terrible power of simplicity.
Pity and terror! And if I am slow to mention the cast it is only because they are, rightly, so integral to the overall piece. Julie Atherton is Therese, equally expressive in silent passivity and crazed passion; Jeremy Legat the prating Camille who gains power only as an inescapable corpse, and Ben Lewis a magnificent, alpha-male Laurent. But above all Tara Hugo as Mme Raquin is unforgettable: a pair of dangerous eyes in a gaunt pale face beneath vain elderly curls, a patter of complacency and scream of harsh song. An exposed nerve.
box office 844 847 1652 or http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 19 April