nick730 (nick730) wrote,

Theatre review: Cause Célèbre

A return to courtroom drama for the Old Vic and a return to Terence Rattigan for director Thea Sharrock after last year's success with After the Dance. Having tackled a largely-forgotten early Rattigan she's now turned (as part of the celebration of his centenary) to a largely-forgotten late Rattigan, in fact his last. A fictionalised retelling of the real-life trial of Alma Rattenbury, Cause Célèbre looks at the beginnings of tabloid culture and how it might affect how justice is done. Alma and her chauffeur George Wood (Tommy McDonnell - WOULD) stand accused of killing Alma's elderly husband. It seems pretty obvious that Alma is trying to take the blame for a murder committed entirely by George, and she's not even doing a particularly convincing job of it. Yet it looks like she might be convicted anyway, the jury having been long since prejudiced by newspaper reports of her loose morals and her affair with the much younger man.

Anne-Marie Duff makes her delayed Old Vic debut (she was due to appear in last year's Bridge Project but had to pull out because her husband James McAvoy didn't, thus depositing a bun in her oven) as Alma and it was worth the wait. She's quietly powerful but, crucially, also exudes a real love of life. In a parallel story, Rattigan has invented Edith Davenport, here played by another of my favourites, Niamh Cusack. Going through a divorce because she's no longer willing to have sex, her joyless sexual repression is contrasted with Alma's triumphant liberation - and she's the forewoman on the jury. Months of salacious news stories have left her prejudiced against Alma's lifestyle to the point that she makes a (denied) request to be excused from the jury as she can't be impartial. Will her preconceptions lead her to abuse her power? Aside from the two female leads and in an overall very strong cast, Nicholas Jones frequently threatens to steal the show as the slipper-clad defence barrister.

Originally a radio play, this is another well-chosen Rattigan that works as both gripping courtroom drama and critique of middle-class attitudes while also providing any number of witty one-liners. Returning to Rattigan is also a return to form for Sharrock after the disappointing Blithe Spirit; the play's origins mean a lot of changes of scene but the director and frequent collaborator Hildegard Bechtler as designer have made these snappy and organic, with the help of lighting designer Bruno Poet, who fills the stage with huge areas of oppressive shadow - possibly the most striking lighting design I've seen so far this year.

Cause Célèbre by Terence Rattigan is booking until the 11th of June at the Old Vic.
Tags: theatre, theatre reviews

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