The first tragic note of this tale is played by Irene Riggs, servant come companion to Alma Rattenbury who attempts to dismiss prospective new help George for being a little too old and strapping, at 17, to qualify for a houseboy position.
Based on an actual 1935 court case but not appearing as a play 1977, Cause Celebre sees Thea Sharrock back at the helm for her second Terrence Rattigan piece. No doubt she is looking to replicate the success enjoyed with last year's After the Dance which saw Nancy Carroll waltz off with a best actress Olivier almost certainly for one of the most memorably moving and emotionally charged scenes on the London stage last year.
But Cause Celebre is a different beast. Alma Rattenbury played by Anne-Marie Duff, is a flirtatious, three-times married mother of two who is put on trial with her lover George (Tommy McDonnell) for the murder of her husband.
It has a more complex narrative as Rattigan weaves in a parallel story of jilted new divorcee Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack) who is fighting for the love and custody of her son and gets called up for jury service on the Rattenbury trial.
Edith represents the common held prejudices of the time mainly that, at 17, George is an innocent corrupted by an older woman, a woman of lose morals.
Duff's Alma is skittish and sexually-charged, flitting from hysterical laughter to being isolated in her own thoughts. She is a woman who appears confident and comfortable in her own skin but is deeply insecure and attention seeking.
Cusack's Edith, in contrast, rarely lets her guard down and is a stoic upholder of morals even attempting to be dismissed from the jury on the grounds that she couldn't give Alma Rattenbury a fair hearing. The chink in her armour is her teenage son Tony (Freddie Fox) who is undergoing a sexual voyage of discovery and with whom there is a growing disconnect.
Once in court the facts emerge in a series of dramatic cross examinations coupled with flashbacks to the night of the murder.
Cause Celebre is in many ways a more intricate piece than After the Dance and Sharrock has succeeded in giving it some intensely charged moments but it lacks the devastating emotion of After the Dance. While Alma is a tragic character she is fickle and at times melodramatic and for all her overly familiar ways essentially aloof which makes it difficult to empathise.
And, considering the subject matter and the vivaciousness of its central character it manages to feel languid at times. The first half, particularly, feels a little slow but I did see it in preview so perhaps it will pick up the pace a bit as it beds in.
I've changed my mind three times about what rating to give this play as it was quality theatre that didn't quite pack the punch I was expecting but then coming along After the Dance it has had big shoes to step into. I've settled on four stars.
Cause Celebre is on at the Old Vic Theatre until June 11.
There are so many connections that I'm surprised Mr W didn't materialise and do a jig across the stage. Mr W's parts are in brackets:
- Simon Chandler plays John Davenport was in Stoned (Keith Richards) and Perfume (Grenouille).
- Patrick Godfrey who plays the judge was in His Dark Materials at the NT (priest)
- Nicholas Jones who plays barrister O'Connel was in Hamlet at the Old Vic (Hamlet)
- Richard Teverson who plays barrister Casswell was in Brideshead (Sebastian Flyte)