Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Review: Cause Célèbre (Old Vic Theatre)

Thea Sharrock’s Olivier-honoured production of After the Dance at the National Theatre last year was one of the most acclaimed Terence Rattigan revivals in recent memory; it’s a production that I’m still kicking myself for missing. In the centenary of the playwright’s birth, Sharrock now takes on another lesser-known Rattigan text - this time the author's last play Cause Célèbre, in a production which had its first performance  at the Old Vic last Thursday. Written in 1976, the play takes as its focus a real-life 1930s murder case: the trial of Alma Rattenbury and her much younger chauffeur/lover Percy ‘George’ Wood for the killing of Alma’s elderly husband, Francis, who was found battered to death with a mallet. The trial caused a media and public storm, and elicited much moral outrage, not least because of the disparity in the lovers' ages. (Alma was 39; George 18.) Rattigan's play combines this incident with a fictional narrative concerning the forewoman of the jury at Alma’s trial, Edith Davenport. Edith is a moral stickler who’s divorcing her philandering husband and feels prejudiced towards Alma on grounds that go beyond the murder she may have committed.  As the trial progresses, however, Edith’s attitude to Alma gradually begins to change.

Sharrock’s swish production has many things going for it: it’s well-cast, and cleverly designed by Hildegard Bechtler, with some memorable details and a good sense of atmosphere. And yet as the evening progresses it’s hard to escape the feeling that something is missing, namely a sense of urgency and dramatic momentum. Despite the play's more salacious subject matter, the production never achieves the emotional hold of Trevor Nunn’s revival of Flare Path, and grips only fitfully. Part of the problem, I’d argue, lies with the play itself, which isn’t one of Rattigan’s strongest works. Structurally, the drama's leaps between past and present are intriguing but sometimes awkward, and certain key roles and relationships end up feeling under-developed. The result is that several good performers in Sharrock’s cast go to waste. In particular, I wanted to see much more of Jenny Galloway as Alma’s maid/companion, and Timothy Carlton who, as Alma’s husband, gets just one decent scene.

Of the main performers, Niamh Cusack, as Edith, is exceptional as always, and responsible for some of the production’s most emotionally affecting moments. Anne-Marie Duff is very good too, but, despite Rattigan’s evident sympathy for Alma as a victim of English sexual puritanism, the character remains something of an enigma to the end. As the sequence is staged here, Alma seems set on seducing George before she’s even clapped eyes on him, and Rattigan stints on scenes between the lovers that would give us a deeper sense of the development of their relationship - this despite the fact that the play's dialogue  is considerably franker in its treatment of sexual matters than much of his earlier work.

Of the other cast members, Tommy McDonnell is fine as George, but this role more than any other feels under-written and, while Rattigan appears to lavish sympathy upon Alma, there seems to be an element of class hostility in his presentation of this character. Nicholas Jones gets good comic mileage out of his role as the shrewd, slipper-wearing barrister who’s defending Alma and who isn’t adverse to bending the rules when he sees fit. And Freddie Fox is memorable as Edith’s son, a character every bit as randy as the one Fox played in the previous OV production, A Flea In Her Ear. (But minus the “comedy” speech impediment, thank God.) The principal problem, though, is that the play seems structured around a connection that isn’t really there. The parallels and contrasts between Alma and Edith’s predicaments that Rattigan develops feel rather strained and contrived, at least until the production’s very final moments which leave an impressively bitter and ironic sting.

Despite effective sequences, then, Sharrock's cool, controlled production doesn't achieve the kind of sustained intensity that we might expect from a Rattigan drama. It's a worthwhile evening overall, but if you’re opting for just one London Rattigan revival this Spring, then Flare Path remains the better bet.

The production runs for 2 hours 40 minutes. Further information at the Old Vic website.


  1. Yes, Flare Path is far more engaging and moving than Cause Celebre. It wasn't unenjoyable but I found it far too long and, at times, nebulous to be fully engaged with it.

  2. Yes, there are strong moments but the structure is a big barrier to involvement, I think. I recently saw a TV version of the play from 1987 which dispenses with the Edith Davenport plot entirely; I thought it was much more engaging.