Cause Celebre at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

The real story behind Terence Rattigan's final play, written in 1976, is shocking enough. In 1934, 38-year-old housewife Alma Rattenbury, married to a man 30 years her senior, advertised in the Bournemouth Echo for a 'daily willing lad, 14-18 for housework'. Within a month of the arrival of said lad, they were lovers; within a year, they were in the dock of the Old Bailey, on trial for the violent murder of Alma's husband. Unsurprisingly, genteel society of the day was outraged by the case which caused a media furore. Whether she'd struck the fatal blow with the mallet or not, Alma was certainly guilty; no married woman who took a teenage lover could go unpunished.

In his retelling of the facts, Rattigan was mining a rich seam. Much of the dialogue comes direct from newspaper accounts or court records of the day and thus maintains a brittle - and still fresh - veracity. And Amanda Harris turns in a stunning performance as Alma, a woman who loves life and all its pleasures and who unashamedly declares her motto, 'a little of what you fancy'. The fact that her overtly sexual 'fancy' is her ultimate downfall is all the more poignant for her foibles.

What is less effective is Rattigan's insistence at locking Alma's story into a theatrical form where her affair and trial are played out in a parallel, chronological soup against the life of fictitious forewoman of the jury, Edith Davenport (Diane Fletcher). Edith is the embodiment of the hypocritical 'Great British public' who has in her mind condemned Alma before hearing a word of testimony.

On the homefront, Edith has troubles of her own. A marriage that's falling apart because she won't grant her husband sex nor condone his adultery and a son, with homosexual urges, who is fleeing from her smothering love. Rattigan struggles to impose a relevance to these details (which are allegedly autobiographical), but ultimately, they serve as a distraction from Alma's much more interesting tale and Harris' much more compelling performance.

Director Neil Bartlett uses the Lyric's stage well, scenes overlapping seamlessly against sepia-toned backdrops. He could stand to cut short the court scenes, particularly where John Quentin's judge warbles on instructing jury and witnesses. We've all seen enough TV courtroom dramas to know this protocol by rote.

The final scene of Cause Celebre is especially evocative. In three different spheres, defence lawyer and Edith watch on as Alma performs her final act of ascension to needless martyrdom. Anyone who attempts to live life to the fullest will be punished one way or another, surely?

Terri Paddock, February 1998