Terence Rattigan’s last play, Cause Célèbre, was written for radio, and it shows, even though the script was heavily re-worked for its West End premiere in 1977.
Thea Sharrock’s Old Vic revival, though not a patch on Neil Bartlett’s beautiful staging at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1998, does its best to cover the clunkiness of the courtroom scenes but is not helped by an uncharacteristically featureless design by Hildegard Bechtler that provides a grim upper level for a prison cell.
The famous case was that of Alma Rattenbury, a bohemian songwriter in Bournemouth, and her young lover, a 17 year-old gardener-cum-chauffeur, George Percy Stoner (here re-named George Wood), accused in 1935 of murdering Alma’s elderly husband.
Rattigan’s masterstroke was to counterpoint Alma’s story with that of a fictional reluctant jurywoman, Edith Davenport, who is trapped in a dead marriage and then caught up in a custody battle over her young teenaged son. Anne-Marie Duff and Niamh Cusack, both slightly, but interestingly, miscast as Alma and Edith, begin stranded on either side of the stage, lonely women, badly treated and sexually unfulfilled.
The play unravels as an exposure of hypocrisy and slavering prurience, but also as a tale of moral courage and defiant decency. The outcome follows the truth of what happened, but Rattigan’s true business is setting up the womens’ dilemma in relief against the casual libertarianism of their menfolk, the media-fuelled sense of public righteousness, and the old school chumminess of the law.
Thus, Alma’s sexual neediness is a virtue next to old Rattenbury’s (Timothy Carlton) decrepit lack of concern, while Edith is asked by her husband (Simon Chandler) to continue their marriage for the sake of their son while he plays around elsewhere; that son (Freddie Fox), bursting with hormones, follows Dad’s example of paying for sex.
Rattigan makes his points without being unduly judgmental. Even Alma’s sister, whom Lucy Robinson plays more or less as “Outraged of Tunbridge Wells”, comes across as vaguely sympathetic. And Nicholas Jones makes the cunning old defence lawyer into something of a Rumpole of the Bailey before his time, scoring neatly off Richard Clifford’s suave prosecutor.
Whereas Bartlett’s production invested the proceedings with a throbbing, fluent sensuality, most of it emanating from Amanda Harris as Alma – and it looked great; this looks ugly, with Bruno Poet’s sketchy lighting belying his surname – Sharrock hasn’t fully worked out any compensatory stage rhythm in the cross fades and intercutting scenes.
Edith sometimes haunts scenes she isn’t in, and Alma appears in the Old Bailey dock in a night-dress and bare feet. But these ideas aren’t boldly stated enough. After Sharrock’s rapturous rediscovery of Rattigan’s After the Dance last year, this is merely routine.
George is at least played with brawny insouciance by Tommy McDonnell. But why is Alma’s sensitive little son played by a square-jawed actor who looks as though he could pack down in England’s second row and scare the daylights out of any opposition?