1st Night Preview: Cause Célèbre, The Old Vic

I suspect this new revival of a hitherto little known Terrence Rattigan play is going to be polarising. Some people will be enthusiastic about it while others will dislike it. Given that we currently have two Rattigan revivals in London, and much as it may sound a little unfair to compare them, I have to admit that I much preferred Flare Path.

Cause Célèbre was Rattigan’s last play which he completed in 1976. It is based on a 1930’s true story of a 39-year-old Alma Rattenbury and her 18-year-old lover George being arrested for the murder of Mrs Rattenbury’s much older husband. The programme tells us that this incident and the ensuing trial caught the attention of the media and the public, both of whom were probably more outraged by the morality issue than the actual murder.

Rattigan juxtaposed this real life incident with a fictional plot in his play. Edith, the fictional character, is a woman of upright moral values and who is in the throes of divorcing her husband on the basis that he hasn’t been faithful to her. Edith also happens to be one of the jurors in the Rattenbury trial and, in fact, is appointed the foreman of the juror. She also has a son who is of the same age as Alma’s young lover. Utterly devoted to her son, whom she still sees as a child, her own feeling towards her own son clouds her judgement of Alma before the trial.

The compare and contrast between Alma and Edith is inevitable. When Edith tells her friend Stella Morrison (played beautifully well by Lucy Robinson) of her husband’s philandering ways, Stella’s response suggests that Edith should accept that a man is likely to have affairs if his wife isn’t prepared to have sex with him regularly. At the same time, Stella, like many of her time, condemn Alma ( ‘that woman’) for having a young lover and a servant at that. In the beginning, Edith doesn’t think she can be a juror on this trial as she feels ‘prejudiced’ against women like Alma but during the trial and the media furore and public outcry that follow it, she begins to see the difference between condemning someone of a crime and taking sides in a morality debate.

Originally meant to be for the radio, this is not an easy play to stage. With many scene changes and a large cast, it is difficult for the play to move from one part to another seamlessly but director Thea Sharrock’s production aims to overcome these hurdles with as much ease as possible. A few scenes take place on a mezzanine stage and while they are cleverly done, looking up for any length of time without any support to the neck is not fun.

This play is a slow burner, and particularly so before the interval, although the pace picks up a little during the second half. Some of the scenes seem laboured; one such scene is when Alma first meets George. Similarly there are scenes involving the lawyers which seem to go on for eternity, making it impossible for the audience to stay fully gripped by the developments on stage. There were murmurs on the length of the play amongst the audience last night as people left the theatre.

The acting throughout is effective and both Anne Marie-Duff (Alma) and Niamh Cusack (Edith) give good performances as the main protagonists. Alma goes through a wide range of emotions in this play, all of which are captured well by Anne Marie-Duff. Niamh Cusack’s Edith is not a cold woman (as society would have thought of her then) but one who is moved deeply by emotions but who, in the end, stands firmly by what she believes to be right.

A quickening of the pace in the first half and a careful look at what can be pruned to keep this to a reasonable length will help this production much, however. But this isn’t one of Rattigan’s best and I left the theatre, unmoved.

Rating: ★★★
Cause Célèbre is on at The Old Vic till 11 June. Press night is on 29 March. Performance time was approximately 3 hours with a 20 minute interval.


About manipillai

Oh, just a few of my thoughts on theatre.
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