“It’s being with a servant — that for me is the real horror.” So says Stella (marvelously scandalized Lucy Robinson) of the shamelessly adulterous woman on trial for the brutal murder of her husband in “Cause Celebre.” Class and repression, in other words, are the central concerns of Terence Rattigan’s courtroom-and-then-some drama set in 1935. Unfortunately, despite impeccable work from the design team, director Thea Sharrock’s evocation of period behaviour is too uneven to create a convincing theatrical grip.
Rattigan’s 1977 play, his last, exhibits all his preoccupations: the perils and pleasures of good breeding, the undoing of sexual desire and societal repression. It follows the true case of a young woman, Alma Rattenbury (Anne-Marie Duff), who with her handyman/chauffeur lover George Wood (Tommy McDonnell) is alleged to have murdered her older husband.
But instead of merely writing a routine did-she/didn’t-she thriller, Rattigan looks at the motives and mores of his characters and the double-standards that engulf them.
To dramatize this, he invented the character of the jury forewoman Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack) and intercuts Alma’s slowly unfolding story with that of Edith and her abhorrence of sex. The latter has led her to separate from her husband and to smother her son Tony (Freddie Fox) whose adolescent sexual awakening she staunchly refuses to recognize, at some considerable cost.
The play was originally written for the radio where intercutting is immediate and easy. On stage, it’s necessarily more cumbersome. And although Hildegard Bechtler’s double-height stage design is as ingenious as it is somber, Sharrock’s transitions between the contrasting spaces have a slowness which saps scenes of energy.
There’s also a considerable problem in her direction of the crucial scene in which Alma and George meet. Sashaying down a long staircase in a silk trouser-suit, Alma comes on to hunky George so instantly and completely she makes Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” look like Mrs. Danvers. Not only does it feel so modern that it destroys the idea of class, it also robs the scene — and the relationship — of tension.
The initially extreme presentation of her character also threatens Edith. Cusack makes such heavy weather of her cut-glass accent that the character appears one-dimensional.
Happily, as the case heats up, Alma’s mixed motives and the mechanics of the courtroom drama come into play with far more engaging results. Alma’s complex emotions as she shields her lover become increasingly engrossing.
A witty Nicholas Jones shines as Alma’s grand but wily defense lawyer and Sharrock gives space to actors in smaller roles. As the housekeeper, Jenny Galloway’s demeanour alone speaks expressive volumes. But despite Anne-Marie Duff ultimately compelling fragility as Alma, there is no getting away from the fact that both play and production are more schematic than sensuous.