Terence Rattigan’s last play was one of the first ideas he had. Having seen the media hype around the trial of Alma Rattenbury in 1935 the idea stuck with him until the end of his life. He returned to it when commissioned to write a radio drama for the BBC in 1974 with the stage version finally being forced into existence in 1977, the year of his death. The story revolves around the undeniably simple concept of the law not being a vessel for morality and the excitement of the real-life case is almost entirely lacking in his laboured adaptation for the stage.
The show looks as if it has been treated like a radio show. The set is sparse and bland throughout. The necessaries are in place and undeniably set the scene well but there is no more than that from the set. It was all very dark, large and brooding that matched the style of the play but didn’t help the staging of it. It did the bare minimum and I don’t think you’d miss much if you had someone record it into a microphone and you listened to it at home as if it were a radio play. Except you might be bored to death and long for someone to come round with a mallet and smash your head in. Lighting effects were good when people needed to be isolated and I was actually very fond of the part of the stage that remained raised above the rest for the more intimate scenes. It was used well if not enough.
The script is dry and dull. The sub-plot, which is about as useful as a sidecar for a passenger who never climbed in in the first place, is almost non-existent. Nimah Cusack makes the most of a one-dimensional role that leads nowhere. It adds a dynamic to the court case but no part of the backstory is tied in at all to any relevant factor and it hangs like a loose piece of skin.
The interesting aspect of the show is the relationship between Alma Rattenbury and her teenage lover and how such a relationship develops into the form portrayed in the later court scenes. This is entirely glossed over. Instead of the action of the story we are given the retrospective considerations of the court, which is nowhere near as interesting unless you’re studying law or are a lawyer in which case you see it every day anyway. Every scene in the court was dry, slow and uninteresting. There were occasional good lines and the competitive relationship between the barristers was interesting and well played if underdeveloped.
Unfortunately there was no saving grace at the end. The final verdict was predictable from the first explanation of Cusack’s character and the ‘twist’ given at the end did about as much as a Chinese burn on a mannequin. Remarkably ineffectual.
The whole play seemed to be a shoehorn for Rattigan to shove his last pearls of wisdom into the theatrical size nines. The point of the law not being a moral force is basic and the intrigue of the court minimal at best. There’s no substance to the story and the fringes are underdeveloped. The action is skipped entirely so the play can act as a retrospective over something nobody has any experience of. I could go on but I’ll just leave it at saying it’s a poorly constructed play.
The acting is thankfully not as bad as the script. There are a number of strong performances that do what is possible to rescue it all. Anne-Marie Duff leads from the front and gives a passionate and electrifying performance, moving from shock to flippancy to despair as quickly as a breeze through winter woodland. Her relationship with Tommy McDonnell’s George didn’t come across with the strength necessary when they were on stage together but they made a good effort of it, the fault probably lying with the fact that they didn’t have much stage time at all to convey the depth of their relationship. I’m not sure they had any after they had become involved at all.
My favourite performance was from Nicholas Jones as the old lawyer O’Connell. He brought the humour that Rattigan was groping for the role, giving both strength and vulnerability to the character, breathing life into a desolate room. His witticisms were well delivered and his courtroom antics relieved the monotony.
The rest of the cast did their best. None of the characters really had a large amount of time with which to make an impact on the audience. There were a lot of them and not much to them. The basic points they were there to make were obvious and no matter how hard they tried to add character it was clear they were there as devices. The judge and the members of the court were strongly played, as was Christopher, Alma Rattenbury’s eldest child. Nimah Cusack deserves a mention for her work with a character struggling with so many tangles that it seems as though she’s living in a massive knot, even if none of the tangles are fully explained. All in all, the supporting cast all do fantastic jobs with their characters and all the actors can pat themselves on the back when they're out of the woods on this one.
Having recently seen Blithe Spirit at the Apollo theatre, another somewhat disappointing production, my eyes are drawn to the fact that they have the same director in Thea Sharrock. Whether having two shows on in major London venues has led to a lack of necessary attention or whether the lack of attention was there before I cannot tell because I haven't seen any of Sharrock's work before. Both suffer from a lack of depth and nuance (though admittedly Cause Celebre has a disadvantaged script - there's little excuse with Noel Coward) and perhaps she has over-exerted herself somewhat.
Respect is due to the Old Vic for partaking of the centenary celebration of Rattigan’s birth year but a different play would have been advisable; Flare Path is much better. As a play it is one-dimensional and self-indulgent and I didn’t care for it at all. Lord knows how the actors are pulling off such a good job of it…
Written by Terence Rattigan; Directed by Thea Sharrock; At the Old Vic; Starring Anne-Marie Duff, Nimah Cusack, Freddie Fox, Tommy McDonnell, Jenny Galloway, Nicholas Jones, Patrick Godfrey; Runs from 17 Mar 11 - 11 Jun 11.
John Ord (06/04/2011)