Theatre Review - 'Cause Celebre'

Posted on: 19 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

A Terrence Rattigan classic is revived at the Old Vic

Footloose and fancy-free - until the court case...Passion, morality, loyalty and betrayal are the elements that Terence Rattigan mixes into an absorbing real-life drama in his unjustly neglected work Cause Celebre, revived in a new production directed by Thea Sharrock at the Old Vic Theatre to mark the centenary of the playwright’s birth.

The play is based on a scandalous trial of the thirties in which a well heeled woman was charged, together with her 19-year-old lover, with the murder of her husband who was bludgeoned to death. Alma Rattenbury, a glamorous former songwriter, had become bored with her dusty husband and become infatuated with George, her young chauffeur, almost half her age, who equally had been obsessed by her.

The crime is never in doubt – it is mentioned in the play’s opening line – but there is uncertainty over who should bear responsibility for it. Did Alma make George do it or did he act entirely on his own?

Running in tandem with the main storyline is a sub-plot involving Edith Davenport, the genteel reactionary who becomes foreman of the trial jury, and who is divorcing her own unfaithful husband and had initially claimed she could not serve because of “a deep prejudice against that woman”. She is finally forced to dig deep into her own heart when it comes to passing judgement.

Written in 1977, just a few months before Rattigan’s death, the play manages to combine anguish, suspense, humour and compassion and shows the inequality of passion, the power of youth over age and the corrosive effects of sexual repression and the class system. Initially though the play appears sketchy and rather confusing as the story is told with the aid of flashbacks but after the interval the work gathers momentum and becomes a gripping courtroom drama. Rattigan’s skill here is to make us understand and even care for a woman who if one had merely read newspaper reports of the crime would have appeared totally unsympathetic.

Director Thea Sharrock draws exemplary performances from Anne-Marie Duff as ‘the scarlet woman’ Alma Rattenbury, an individual driven by love and lust into a forbidden desire ending in murder, Tommy McDonnell, who brings a persuasive mixture of brashness and vulnerability to the role of her toy boy George, while Niamh Cusack is equally effective as Edith Davenport, displaying a suffocating love for her son, well played by Freddie Fox. Also worth mentioning is Lucy Robinson as Edith’s shallow sister Stella, and Nicholas Jones, commanding attention as Alma’s barrister.

A rewarding evening then in the theatre.

Runs until June 11.

Box office: 0844 871 7628

Press: 020 7243 6176

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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