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Review: Cause Celebre

The Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations continue with this revival of his final play, 1976’s Cause Celebre, taken on by director Thea Sharrock, fresh from last year’s acclaimed production of Rattigan’s After the Dance at the National Theatre. The play centres on the true story of 39 year old Alma Rattenbury, trialled in 1935 alongside her 18 year old lover for the brutal murder of her older husband. The case attracted notoriety due to the age difference between the lovers, which came to outrage the public even more than the murder itself. This controversy is what much of the play spins on: it allows for the introduction of a sub-plot involving Edith, called upon as forewoman of the jury for Alma’s trial, whose social and sexual repression and morally upright nature make her so prejudiced against Alma from the start that she fears she will be unable to give her a fair trial, such has the taboo sexual liaison obscured and problematised the issues of guilt and innocence.

The two principal female parts are portrayed masterfully. Anne-Marie Duff is a wonderful Alma, oozing sexuality, danger and wicked fun from her very first appearance, sashaying downstairs in satin pyjamas to meet the rough and ready builder’s son George, who has come for an interview for a servant’s job. For much of the play we are unclear over whodunit, and despite the knowledge that Alma has seduced a teenager and probably murdered her husband, I found myself warming to her inexplicably and rooting for her, a sentiment echoed by all around her, from the initially stern prison warden to her team of frustrated lawyers. Meanwhile Edith, in many ways a twin to Alma, both suffering marital problems and consumed by love for a teenager (Edith for her rebellious son Tony, Alma for George), is played brilliantly by Niamh Cusack, whose gradual transformation throughout the play follows our own oscillations in emotion and attitude as the dramatic court case is played out before us.

Much of the action occurs in flashback, which often works well, for example as the scenes of the murder are played out in the midst of the trial. Yet this does me

an that some relationships are not fleshed out, most notably the relationship between Alma and George upon which the whole action depends, which is described to us more than it is shown. This use of flashback and swift changes in focus do however allow the play to work on many levels which come together euphorically near the end, although the second half, focusing on the unravelling of Alma’s story, rather forgets about the subplot of Edith’s relationships with her son and ex-husband, which is left unsatisfactorily hanging. The action is fast paced and extremely exciting; throughout the interval I found myself desperate for the curtain to rise again and the trial to continue. There is also much humour alongside the intense tension, particularly provided by the excellent Nicholas Jones as Alma’s beslippered, rule-bending defence lawyer, who almost steals the show.

The play’s strengths lie in the range of human emotions and relationships expressed in this play. Its exploration of the themes of justice and morality are ever-relevant, despite the play’s 1930s setting, with its stricter moralities and the threat of capital punishment looming large. Although not one of Rattigan’s better known plays, this spectacular production with outstanding performances is in itself a cause celebre.

 ‘Cause Celebre’ is at the Old Vic, London, until 11 June

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