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Cause Célèbre

Published 30 March 2011

Rattigan is back in fashion. In the 100th anniversary year of the playwright’s birth, the Old Vic is the latest theatre to revive one of his plays, in this case his final play, which premiered just months before he died, in 1977.

The story harks back to an era more regularly associated with Rattigan, 1935, and is based on the true case of Alma Rattenbury, a woman in her late 30s who was accused, along with her 17-year-old lover, of battering her elderly husband to death. Sent to trial, Alma faces jury forewoman Edith Davenport who, in Rattigan’s story, is a highly moralistic woman with personal difficulties of her own.

In essence, Rattigan’s play is about sex, and the different attitudes to it from varying strands of society. While Alma is a life-loving woman with a healthy sexual appetite, Edith dislikes “that side of things” and finds herself divorcing her philandering husband. Meanwhile, the sexual awakening of Alma’s young lover George is contrasted by the unfortunate first experience of Edith’s son, who is the same age as George.

These parallels are not subtle, and it is a reflection of the time it was written that Rattigan is so open about the subject. He is not writing in 1935, and this work doesn’t contain the same sort of repressed emotion and thwarted yearning of his earlier works. Rather, he includes a frank discussion of marital affairs between Edith and her sister Stella, another between Edith’s husband and their sexually frustrated son, as well as depicting the gossip-mongering and public appetite for salacious scandal that surrounds Alma’s trial. Nevertheless, the obvious contrasts between Edith and Alma set up a courtroom cross-examination that is intriguing, entertaining and, eventually, heartbreaking.

Director Thea Sharrock and designer Hildegard Bechtler – the same team behind the award-winning production of Rattigan’s After The Dance last year – have created a two-tier set to cope with the move from living room to courtroom, bedroom to prison cell. The scenes intertwine, with Edith and Alma occupying, in turn, the same home, further emphasising the contrast between them.

While Niamh Cusack has perhaps the tougher job of making us sympathise with the straight-laced Edith, Anne-Marie Duff truly shines as Alma. Rattigan has written her as a beguiling, warm, carefree character who inspires affection in those she meets – transforming the officious prison warden into a concerned friend – and Duff captures this perfectly. Luminous in her floaty floral dresses, and conveying both vivacity and vulnerability, Duff makes it easy to dismiss the less salubrious aspects of Alma’s character.

Strong support comes in the form of Lucy Robinson as the gossiping Stella, and Nicholas Jones as Alma’s barrister O’Connor, who keeps energy high during the courtroom scenes.

Rattigan may have fallen out of fashion during his lifetime, but this revival, coupled with the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s current production of Flare Path, confirms that he deserves this resurgence in popularity.



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