Theatre Review: Cause Celebre, at the Old Vic

Cause Celebre

Anne-Marie Duff stars as Alma Rattenbury in Thea Sharrock's Old Vic production

Despite touches of warmth, the Old Vic’s striking production of Rattigan’s tale of potential murderess Alma Rattenbury fails to achieve its glamorous aims

Rather like the glamorous red dress seen in advertising posters for Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre, but which never materialises in the actual production (or at least, not that I noticed), the Old Vic’s latest offering promises much but unfortunately falls short of many of its grandiose, glamorous aims.

Directed by Thea Sharrock, the play’s strength lies in its individual, human characters, all of whom display believable flashes of emotion, inner conflict and compassion, against a cleverly used, if somewhat disjointed set, which, despite its size, is nearly dwarfed by the sheer scale of the Old Vic stage.

Anne-Marie Duff, who made her name with television roles, including that of Elizabeth II in drama The Virgin Queen and, notably, long-running Channel 4 success Shameless, carries the show, making the scandalous would-be murderess Alma Rattenbury vulnerable, funny, sharp and likeable as we see her fly through an affair with her 17-year-old chauffeur, a drunken post-murder bout of hysteria, a spell in prison and a drawn-out and emotional court case, in which she contends with several lawyers, cries in front of her eldest son and breaks down from the memory of her dead husband.

Similarly, Niamh Cusack, in the role of the initially hostile but ultimately sympathetic forewoman of the jury, is the less dramatic Edith Davenport, whose suffering over her own marital problems is palpable throughout.

Contrasting deliciously with the heightened, authentically accented tension of the two women’s lives are the gloriously sarcastic and witty lawyers, stereotypically yet satisfyingly offering much comic relief to the previous scenes’ shrill overtones, and whose accompanying scenery of dark wooden panels and striking lighting help ground the story to a resounding, if predictable, finish.

Despite such human displays, touches of humour and sometimes impressive sets, the play falls short of packing the dramatic punch it clearly desires, and instead emerges as a piece in two halves, which takes the first portion of its allocated time to get going. The opening act sets the scene in a flurry of undeveloped, over-acted and over-accented stock characters (the woman with loose morals, the old husband, the young household staff member, the uptight wife, the thrilled celebrity-watcher, the loving child) without giving us a real reason to care about their fate. The roles appear little more than caricatures, looking and sounding epoch-appropriate but otherwise doing little to inhabit either the commanding set or the foundations of the forthcoming disturbing events. By the interval, nothing is resolved; the story barely begun.

Anne-Marie Duff brings Alma to life in the second half

Anne-Marie Duff brings Alma to life in the second half

The second act is far more emotional, deftly putting flesh on the bones of hitherto unfulfilling and skeletal parts. Through a convincing set of flashbacks and part-scene changes, Sharrock unmasks Rattigan’s text, allowing us an insight into the motives behind the finally-revealed murder, the stress suffered by a suddenly maternal and warm Rattenbury, the oddly endearing older husband, the sensitive side to the wronged Davenport and the regret felt by her child’s much-loved father. Cleverly contrasting light, space, and sound, Sharrock ultimately makes us warm to the beleaguered cast before taking all present to the dark recesses of despair at the moment Alma discovers, and acts upon, the penalty that awaits her former lover.

The overall effect is of a heartfelt, human play, with elements of compassion throughout, but which nonetheless leaves the audience member feeling distinctly deflated at the opportunities missed during the over-dramatised, shrill yet curiously flat first act.

It is also unclear what Rattigan, or indeed Sharrock, is attempting to emphasise in this portrayal of a true story. Could it be the drama of the era, all fur shrugs, silk negligees, high ceilings, impromptu affairs, gramophone records and startling quantities of liqueur which finally lead to legal retribution? The text would suggest no, repeating endlessly that the jury should abjure only the murderer, not the perceived moral bankruptcy of one of the accused.

But the focus on these rather aesthetic aspects, along with the scant lip-service paid to the still-relevant dangers of over-hyped media attention surrounding high-profile court cases, (including, one assumes, the ‘cause celebre’ of the title), the often too-daunting sets and never quite-reconciled parallels between Davenport’s plight and that of Rattenbury’s, is at the expense of what could have been a wholly more compelling, individual story, which in more subtle, cautious hands, has the potential to be a touching portrayal of two women’s familial and personal breakdowns.

The play’s last line intimates an ambitious intention to throw the spotlight on the elusive nature of justice, the meaning of wifedom, womanhood and perhaps even life itself, but the lack of continuity throughout, the characters’ noticeably staccato shift from mere scene-setters to hot-blooded humans, and the curiously stark and sometimes jarring sets overshadow any glimpse of moral positing that may otherwise have emerged. The result is a visually arresting, sometimes poignant, but ultimately lacklustre window on to the real Mrs Alma Rattenbury’s scandalous, complex and fateful story.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: Cause Celebre, at the Old Vic

  1. manipillai says:

    I liked your review. I saw Cause Celebre on the first preview night and had a mixed response to it. But ultimately, the length and the painfully slow first half of the play didn’t endear it to me. It lacked urgency and, as you say, a dramatic punch. Also I’d watched Flare Path a week before I saw Cause Celebre and, perhaps if I’d done it the other way round, I might have been a tad more generous to Cause Celebre.

  2. Not All Who Wonder Are Lost says:

    Thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you about Flare Path, and I saw it after I’d seen Cause Celebre (rather belated review to come!) which, incidentally, we seem to agree on as well. I didn’t want to entirely dismiss them, but both plays seem to have a rather slow interest in small details, that at first glance don’t appear to enhance the overall meaning of the plot, or the message being portrayed. Maybe that was Rattigan’s intention: making us focus on the small things against a backdrop of more significant ones? This should emphasise both the big, and the small, I’d suggest, in that case – but there seems to be a danger, with both these plays, that neither end up looking especially in focus, and the end result is a bit blurred…?

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