In his centenary year, the country has gone Terrence Rattigan mad, with revivals of ‘Flare Path’ and ‘Cause Celebre’ leading the pack. I am a massive Rattigan fan, I find him to be a very natural playwright whose scripts are both sincere and affecting; it is a shame that we need an anniversary to perform his plays.
Cause Celebre has just begun its run at the Old Vic. It is Rattigan’s final play, completed in 1976, and originally written for radio. Based on an actual 1930s murder trial, this mysterious story outraged and simultaneously fascinated the British public. It intrigued Rattigan too and stayed in his memory for forty years before he felt able to create a powerful play from it.
Alma Rattenbury and her 18 year old lover George are accused of murdering Mrs Rattenbury’s much older husband - an upper class scandal in Bournemouth that filled every newspaper, it was the story on everyone’s lips. Justice is forgotten as Alma becomes the target of everyone's prejudice; the media scorn her moral decisions, and her fate seems to be decided on these issues rather than the facts of the case. The public interest in this case led to the transfer from Bournemouth to the Old Bailey, a larger court to accommodate the queues of people wanting to watch.
As a sub-plot, alongside the Rattenbury outrage, we meet another woman, a fictional addition that creates another dimension and draws parallels within the narrative. Edith Davenport is an upstanding member of society, hoping to always do the ‘right thing’. She is in the midst of a painful divorce after discovering her husband's philandering ways, though with her dislike of sex her friend assures her that this behaviour is to be expected of him. She is also a devoted mother refusing to believe her 17 year old son to be a ‘man’, terrified of the dangers that arrive with his coming of age. Edith must stand as a juror on the Rattenbury case, despite protesting and claiming she cannot give ‘such a woman’ a fair trial, as her judgement is already clouded by the bad press.
Gossiping will never go out of fashion, it’s what women do best and Rattigan understands this. He is a perceptive observer of the female psyche, writing roles that are wonderfully dramatic and intriguing. Anne-Marie Duff triumphs as the playful leading lady, Alma Rattenbury. Duff rightly says: “we’re lucky us girls... Rattigan tends to use women in a brilliant way.” She returns to the stage for the first time since her winning performance in Saint Joan at the National in 2007. She effortlessly constructs this complicated character, her face is joyfully expressive, and her giant personality fills the stage despite the disappointingly sparse set.
Niamh Cusack takes on the part of Edith Davenport. I previously saw Cusack in ‘The Painter’ and wasn’t overly impressed, but here her worrying eyes and nervy nature fit the bill. Nicholas Jones is inspired as Alma’s defence lawyer, O’Connor, marching about the stage and providing a little light comic relief. Having recently done jury service myself, I was particularly interested by this court drama and was impressed with the intense realism of Rattigan’s writing. The only character I was dissatisfied by was the young Tommy McDonnell as the guilty lover, he is too aggressive to be attractive, and I just couldn’t completely believe in him.
The Old Vic is a beautiful theatre, I always feel like I’m inside a giant box of chocolates sitting inside this building. With youth comes theatre bargains and the Old Vic have an exceptional offer for 25s and under... I sat for a mere £12 in the centre of the front row stalls, scintillatingly close to the action. If you refuse to pay the ridiculously high prices for Flare Path, get your Rattigan fix at the Old Vic’s cheaper, but equally brilliant production.
Cause Celebre continues until 11 June, book here.