REVIEW: Therese Raquin at Cambridge Arts Theatre

PUBLISHED: 12:15 27 August 2014 | UPDATED: 12:15 27 August 2014

The cast of Therese Raquin.

The cast of Therese Raquin.

Archant

At the venue until Saturday, August 30. Stars Alison Steadman.

If Shakespeare could see Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1867 novel, a story of lust, murder and madness, he might have wished he had written it instead of Macbeth. This production really is that good. Horrific but funny.

Alison Steadman, magnificent as ever, plays Madame Raquin, as a good-natured but bossy old biddy who marries off her quiet niece, Therese, who she has brought up as a daughter, to her immature chump of a son Camille.

The desultory marriage remains unconsummated. The highlight of the family’s dull week is when Madame Raquin’s friends arrive to play dominos and drink tea.

Then, one evening, everything changes. Camille’s old friend, the handsome and charming Laurent turns up. Suddenly the young girl who says she felt as “dead as a pressed flower” finds herself surprisingly alive.

In the midst of a passionate affair, the lovers conspire to kill the foppish Camille because he is in their way. Like the Macbeths, they think it’s what they want but instead of bringing them happiness, they are locked into a creeping horror.

As with the Scottish couple, the chemistry between them is so convincing that, despite the terrible thing that they have done, you don’t want them to fail. We all make mistakes.

Playing the oafish husband Camille, Hugh Skinner (memorable for his wonderfully well-observed work experience guy in the television spoof W1A about the BBC - he didn’t say much more than “cool” but stole the show) would walk off with this one too if everyone else wasn’t similarly luminescent.

Pippa Nixon offers a tour de force as the ever evolving Therese, who shocks herself at what she becomes. This is a delicate performance of great strength. It could so easily be melodrama, but it never is. This is a balletic show with satin smooth scene switches and slinky on-stage costume changes which involve her in graceful dance lifts.

More than one scene is reminiscent of a ballet to Dominic Haslam’s powerful score, mainly for cello and piano. The lovers’ passion and the murder scene have ethereal flair.

Alison Steadman’s grief as the old lady bereaved of her son, her rallying of spirits when she thinks it’s her idea to marry Therese again – this time to Laurent - and her final disintegration when she discovers the truth make a performance it is a privilege to see.

There is lightness and humour throughout, even at the grimmest moments of the plot – but a lot of fun comes from the domino-playing friends. Michael Mears is wonderful as Grivet the railway clerk with his dead-pan delivery, his obsession with punctuality and his insistence on the table being in exactly the same place each week, to the centimetre. Other characters can be having a nervous breakdown but he will observe that “well...if we want to play two games....”

Charlotte Mills is utterly believable as the breezy and bonny Suzanna, niece to Superintendent Michaud, played with solid realism by Desmond Barrit. There’s one of her at every hen night, usually organising it.

This beautiful production from the Theatre Royal Bath directed by Jonathan Munby flows as a single torrent like the river in the story. Everything works, including the design (Mike Britton) the costumes (Caroline Hughes) and the sound (Carolyn Downing).

It’s edge of your seat stuff, unforgettable, one of the best things on stage in a decade. Magnifique.

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