It might appear that the West End is currently awash with plays by Terence Rattigan. To be precise and to exaggerate rather less, there are two of Rattigan's plays running right now: 'Flare Path' and this new revival, 'Cause Célèbre', directed by Thea Sharrock who last year directed another Rattigan play, 'After The dance', at the National. The reason for these revivals is that this year sees the 100th anniversary of Rattigan's birth.
A 'Cause Célèbre' is an issue which attracts considerable public attention. Often, the term is used for notorious court cases. And that is the meaning here since the play is about the sensational Rattenbury murder of 1935 which happened in Bournemouth in Dorset. Owing to intense local interest, the case was heard at the Old Bailey in London.
Alma Rattenbury and her 18-year-old lover, George Stoner (here called George Wood) were tried for the murder of Alma's husband, Francis, who was assaulted with a wooden mallet and later died from his injuries. Alma claimed that she had killed her husband, but was acquitted. George was found guilty and sentenced to be hung (the sentence was later commuted). Alma was largely vilified as the older woman who had corrupted a young man.
Rattigan's play is set in the Old Bailey, the family home of the Rattenburys where the murder occurred, and the home of Edith Davenport who is destined to be on the jury of the trial. Rattigan contrasts the lives and attitudes of the two women: Alma Rattenbury (played by Anne-Marie Duff) and Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack). In his examination of them, Rattigan covers themes such as sexual puritanism and class. Niamh Cusack's Edith is a frosty, rather bitter woman who has just secured a divorce from her husband on the grounds of his adultery. And that is not surprising as she tells us quite plainly that she's never been very interested in the sexual side of marriage, which suggests a reason why her husband sought comfort elsewhere. Later, she refuses to let her husband back into her life, even though he offers not to make any sexual demands on her. Anne-Marie Duff's Alma, on the other hand, is care-free and vivacious, at least until the trial when she declines into morbid inaction. Alma's approach to sex and life is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Edith's. Though Alma deceives her husband, she still cares for him and his needs. Where Edith freezes her husband out of the equation, Alma never does and doesn't even seem to have the intention of doing so.
Both Anne-Marie Duff and Niamh Cusack in the leading roles produce powerful and moving portrayals. In the support department, I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Jones as Alma's silky-voiced and devious barrister, O'Connor; Jenny Galloway as Alma's dour companion, Irene Riggs; and Freddie Fox as Edith's son, Tony, whose desperate need to lose his virginity results in him acquiring an 'unspeakable' infection.
Hildegard Bechtler's flexible set sports an elevated platform for the bedroom and gaol scenes, and there's dark wood panelling which fits well with the court room, but lends a gloomily sombre effect to the rest of the play as well, which of course may well be the intention, but seemed a little too much. On the whole, though, Thea Sharrock's revival is highly commendable and well-worth seeing.
"Terrific revival... in Sharrock’s loving and beautifully acted revival it mixes anguish, suspense, humour and compassion to often electrifying effect."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The production lacks real piquancy. Sharrock directs clinically, and there's not enough sense of urgency and ardour."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"It’s a gritty, gripping story...superb, suggestive production."
Mark Shenton for The Stage