You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cause Celebre

Despite impeccable work from the design team, director Thea Sharrock's evocation of period behaviour is too uneven to create a convincing theatrical grip.

Alma Rattenbury - Anne-Marie Duff
Edith Davenport - Niamh Cusack
Stella Morrison - Lucy Robinson
O'Connor - Nicholas Jones
John Davenport - Simon Chandler
Tony Davenport - Freddie Fox
George Wood - Tommy McDonnell
Francis Rattenbury - Timothy Carlton
Croom-Johnson - Richard Clifford

“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.

Cause Celebre

The Old Vic, London; 984 seats; £48.50 $78 top

Production: An Old Vic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Terence Rattigan. Directed by Thea Sharrock.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Hildegard Bechtler; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Ian Dickinson for Autograph; music, Adrian Johnston; production stage manager, Laura Flowers.. Opened, reviewed March 29, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast: Alma Rattenbury - Anne-Marie Duff
Edith Davenport - Niamh Cusack
Stella Morrison - Lucy Robinson
O'Connor - Nicholas Jones
John Davenport - Simon Chandler
Tony Davenport - Freddie Fox
George Wood - Tommy McDonnell
Francis Rattenbury - Timothy Carlton
Croom-Johnson - Richard CliffordWith: Lucy Black, Oliver Coopersmith, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Jenny Galloway, Patrick Godfrey, Tristan Shepherd, Richard Teverson, Sarah Waddell, Michael Webber, Tristram Wymark

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content