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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
CAUSE CELEBRE
at the Old Vic

OLD BAILEY
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Anne-Marie Duff and Tommy McDonnell/ Ph: Johan Persson

Of the two major playwrights whose centenaries fall this year, Terence Rattigan and Tennessee Williams, Rattigan is so far faring the better, in London at least. Trevor Nunn's irresistible revival of the wartime Flare Path has been followed quickly by a serviceable, rather than truly remarkable, production by Thea Sharrock of his very last play.

Sharrock hit the bulls-eye last year with the revelatory revival of Rattigan’s early, mostly forgotten After the Dance at the National, but she cannot work a similar magic on Cause Célèbre at the Old Vic, chiefly because it is a radio play, hastily and desperately rewritten for the stage, with three different directors, in 1977 so that the dying playwright could attend one last first night.

The famous case in question was the 1935 Old Bailey trial of Alma Rattenbury and her boy- toy lover, George Percy Stoner, accused of murdering Alma’s elderly husband, which made an indelible impression on Rattigan. It had everything: sex, adultery, social scandal and honest passion. And it all happened in Bournemouth, my dear, usually such a dull and sedate seaside resort. There was no money or material gain involved: Alma and George were in love.

Thea Sharrock’s production, while efficiently organised, is far less imaginative and moving than a Lyric Hammersmith revival by Neil Bartlett 12 years ago. The first, and only, surprise is that Sharrock has oddly cast two exceptional Irish actors in the roles of Alma and her spiritual opposite and judgmental nemesis, Edith Davenport.

Anne-Marie Duff wafts into view as the Bournemouth songwriter in a cloud of cigarette smoke and a silk-print trouser suit, voraciously consuming the new gardener George with her eyes before he’s even picked up a trowel. Her husband Francis’ sexual diffidence, and the couple’s suggestion that George find himself a chauffeur’s cap, is Rattigan’s discreet nod towards Joe Orton, whose Entertaining Mr Sloane he had much admired and enjoyed in 1964.

In contrast, Niamh Cusack as Edith, a fictional character devised by Rattigan to offset Alma’s story with that of a sexually dried-up woman in an equally unrewarding marriage, is starchy, fierce and absolute. Edith is appointed to head the jury that tries Alma, a brilliant theatrical innovation that is only ploddingly executed.

Edith’s husband (Simon Chandler) rejects her plea for a divorce for the sake of their teenage son – nicely played by Freddie Fox, son of Edward – while insisting on his own sexual freedoms outside their marriage. Oddly, this side of the play is more imaginatively written than Alma’s tense triangle with George and Francis, where the Ortonesque possibilities are ditched in favour of stark standoff.

Rattigan is more interested in getting to the courtroom – which is fine on radio, but dull in the theatre, especially as designed by Hildegard Bechtler – where the rival counsels (Nicholas Jones and Richard Clifford) air all manner of prejudices surrounding the case, and the public clamour, filtered through the writing in subtle threads, gives vent to moral outrage and hypocritical prurience at the same time.

Cusack gradually unbends in the recognition of a kindred spirit who fought harder than she did, while Duff – so brilliant in her last stage outing three years ago as Saint Joan at the National – resorts to a hysterical screeching followed by calm, scary resignation. Sharrock’s suggestion that both women are sharing the same dream, or nightmare, is only fitfully manifest; Duff’s barefooted swaying in the criminal dock, clothed in a nightdress, simply looks awkward.

The star of After the Dance, Benedict Cumberbatch (who may be Broadway-bound in that show), has completed a television documentary on the playwright, while his father, Timothy Carlton, plays Francis Rattenbury at the Old Vic. Poor old chap ends slumped in a chair with severe head damage inflicted by George’s garden mallet, a state that requires a makeup job almost as extreme as Benedict’s when playing the Creature in Frankenstein across the road at the National. 

 

 


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