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Cause Célèbre, The Old Vic

Terence Rattigan
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Courtesy of The Old Vic
Going to see a show at The Old Vic is always a treat. While the National is a space where new, ambitious and risky shows are staged, The Old Vic has focused on delivering more conservative, but no less masterfully fine-tuned productions. No outrageous set, no dazzling special effects – but honest, high quality performances and direction. In the last year, The Old Vic has done this remarkably well with the comedies Design for Living and A Flea In Her Ear. Heading to The Cut for their latest offing, Cause Célèbre, a courtroom drama, one couldn’t help but wonder if this more serious show could live up to our high expectations. The verdict? Brilliant, as ever.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Terence Rattigan, which some London theatres are celebrating with productions of his plays, such as Trevor Nunn’s revival of Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and of course, The Old Vic’s production of Cause Célèbre. One of his less performed plays, Cause Célèbre is no less excellently penned. It is also, incidentally, Rattigan’s last work, written in the years before his death in 1977. The story, based on actual events, focuses around two women who do not formally know each other, but whose lives come crashing together in a high profile, scandalous court case: one accused of the grisly murder of her husband, the other the reluctant forewoman of the jury.

The danger with courtroom dramas is in leaving the audience feeling overwhelmed with facts, confused as to which character is which what their motives are. Indeed, done wrong, this brilliant script could easily have been confusing and even dull. However, following on from the success of her Tony Award winning production of Rattigan’s After the Dance, Thea Sharrock’s direction manages to deliver the full force of the plot, whilst exhibiting all the subtleties of the wider story. In particular, Sharrock’s direction allows the fascinating and complex relationship between Alma Rattenbury, the protagonist, and her 18 year old lover, George Wood, to come to the fore. The subtle symmetry between jurywoman and prisoner is also masterfully highlighted.

Anne-Marie Duff, as Alma Rattigan, truly is the star of the show. In fact, the entire production rests on her performance being believable, which is no small feat, given the complexities and conflictions inherent in her character. But she pulls it off very well, especially in the second half. She is propped up by some excellent supporting performances, notably from Niamh Cussack as the reluctant jury forewoman Edith Davenport, whose decisions in the play carry the moral message of the script, and which is delivered in an understated but effective way. Other notable performances came from Freddie Fox, as Davenport’s troubled son, and Tommy McDonnell as George Wood, Rattenbury’s controlling 18 year old lover.

The staging too, is very well done. The set is impressive, but never meant to distract from the action, and always used in a simple, stylistic way, especially during the slick scene transitions. There seemed to be some issues relating to the set being moved, very slowly in and out during actual scenes, and it was hard to tell whether this was a deliberate move or an actual mishap. Regardless of this, the show looked visually strong.

All in all, Cause Célèbre is again, and in typical Old Vic fashion, a textbook example of the genre. It would be hard to stage a courtroom drama better: Cause Célèbre manages to put the essential details clearly, yet retain many of the intricacies which make the script so powerful. The result is a show which sets the tone in the first half (albeit, if one were to pick bones, in a slightly long-winded fashion), but which keeps you glued to the edge of your seat during the entire second half. The message of the play, which is to do with the place of the judicial system in society, and its relationship with the media, is conveyed effectively, and is perhaps even more powerful today than when it was written in 1975. To sum up, this is not only a gripping play to watch, but also an important one, from which today’s Everyman could learn a thing or two. So, with a string of 3 excellent shows, it is with great anticipation that we await The Old Vic’s Richard III, with the theatre’s artistic director – Kevin Spacey himself – in the title role.

Cause Célèbre runs at The Old Vic until 11th June 2011.
Box office: 0844 871 7628 or book online at http://store.ambassadortickets.com/ShowList.aspx

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