The Theatreguide.London Review
Finborough Theatre Spring 2014; Park Theatre Summer 2014
A chamber opera adaptation (libretto by Nona Shepphard, music by Craig Adams) of Émile Zola's novel nicely captures the hothouse atmosphere of both entrapment and passion but is less consistently successful in setting it to music.
Zola's tale is of a woman stuck in a boring bourgeois marriage who has a passionate affair with an artist. But when the lovers are cursed by having their wishes come true, the mix of let-down, guilt and mutual recrimination creates an unbearable hell.
Acting as her own director, Nona Sheppherd skilfully squeezes a large cast onto the Finborough's postage-stamp-sized stage, creating an evocatively claustrophobic atmosphere, and the device of keeping Thérèse silent for the first half-hour establishes her as a figure of pain and repressed emotions.
Some of the musical set pieces are very effective. A patter song accompanying the weekly domino games that symbolise Thérèse's boring marriage gradually becomes more ominous and overpowering, a wedding song is cheery and melodic, and the lovers' liebestod duet has operatic power.
Too often, though, the weak link is Shepphard's lyrics, which are either just prose underscored by music and relying too much on the mechanical repetition of phrases to give the impression of verse, or built on strained imitation-Sondheim internal rhymes.
As Thérèse, Julie Atherton has the stage presence to dominate the opening scenes even while silent and, though a little less convincing as the passionate lover, regains her brooding power in the dark final sequence.
Ben Lewis convincingly takes the man from anticipating nothing more than a pleasant interlude (his first song is 'May as well, and why not?) through obsessive passion to regret and despair.
Tara Hugo is saddled with some of the most prosaic and least melodic songs, but still creates in the old woman an imposing figure who will grow into the moral authority of the play.
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