The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 29 March, 2011

The re-evaluation of Terence Rattigan had already begun by the time Cause Célèbre, adapted from a radio play, received its West End première four months before his death in 1977. In Thea Sharrock’s revival for Rattigan’s centenary year it constitutes, like so much of his work, an indictment of bourgeois pieties and hypocrisies every bit as scathing as those of the Angry Young Men who had eclipsed him in the 1950s and Sixties. Once again his subject is the inconsistent assumptions knotted through that most English of awkward subjects, sex. Not, on this occasion, coded allusions to his own homosexuality; by this time he was both open about his sexuality and no longer criminalised as a result of it. But today as in the Seventies when it was written and the Thirties when it takes place, we have a way both of investing sex with almost transcendental significance and yet refusing to speak candidly of it, making it at once both totem and taboo. This confers power on the administrators of these paradoxical values: the middle-class, the male, the censorious of whatever stripe.
Rattigan had been fascinated by the 1935 trial in which 39-year-old Alma Rattenbury and her 18-year-old lover George Stoner were accused of murdering Rattenbury’s 68-year-old architect husband. In Cause Célèbre he found his dramatic key to the story: alongside the account of the Rattenbury trial and the two accused’s stormy affair, he interwove an account of a female juror (whose personality was to some extent based on that of his own mother) who begins the trial implacably prejudiced against Rattenbury but finds that the evidence adduced and her own family upheavals each come to illuminate the other. Both these sets of personal passions are contrasted with, at one extreme, the press and public’s ostentatious baying for blood, and at the other the jaded urbanity with which prosecuting and defence counsel present their cases.
Anne-Marie Duff plays Alma as if she is often bewildered by her own life, riding switchbacks of emotion, zoning in and out of the reality around her. Niamh Cusack as juror Edith is as buttoned-up as any Rattigan protagonist has ever been, except where her teenage son is concerned. Nicholas Jones as Alma’s smooth-talking barrister fully deserves to be called a “silk”. Sharrock’s production does not feelingly convey the intensity of these people’s feelings in contrast to the prevailing mores; this is a more distant evening than her award-winning revival last year of Rattigan’s After The Dance, but no less elegant in its way.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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