Cause Célèbre, Old Vic, London
Friday 01 April 2011
It says a lot for Terence Rattigan that while his sprawling, final 1977 play – a hybrid of family and courtroom drama chronicling a real-life murder in 1935 – lacks the devastating punch of other recent centenary revivals, it still knocks its characters off their smugly held moral high ground with more eloquence and ruthlessness than anything produced by today's current crop of playwrights.
During other, recent, better revivals of Rattigan – whose plays are populated by the upper and middle classes, and who in the 1950s was rejected by a theatre establishment in thrall to new working class realism – you could almost hear his ghost whispering, "See?"
But with Thea Sharrock's second contribution to the rehabilitation of a neglected reputation (following last year's superb After the Dance), not even Anne-Marie Duff's life-affirming performance as songwriter Alma Rattenbury, accused of murdering her elderly husband and revealed as the seducer of the 17-year-old boy in her employ, can revive Rattigan's whispering spirit.
The case, in which Rattenbury's working-class teenage lover (a coiled Tommy McDonnell) battered her husband's head in with a mallet, was a sensation in the Thirties. In the play we hear rather than see them, as jeers from a public scandalised more by the sex between a woman and a man young enough to be her son, than by the killing.
And embodying the prurient and puritanical attitudes with which the gay Rattigan, then in his twenties, would have had to contend, is Niamh Cusack's stone-faced, sexually repressed Edith Davenport, the fictional forewoman in Rattigan's version of events.
Here, Rattigan's play veers into familiar territory, complete with a showboating defence lawyer (a delightfully irreverent Nicholas Jones) and all the enjoyable tensions of a courtroom drama in which the life of the accused lies in the hands of the prejudiced, even though Davenport admits her horror of this scarlet woman to the judge.
That said, Rattigan's story rises above the status of morality tale. He endows his women with a desolate self-awareness, and each ends up suffering deeply for their very different values. Davenport's sexually starved husband reluctantly seeks satisfaction outside his marriage (Simon Chandler plays possibly the most dignified adulterer in English drama), and her 17-year-old son (a fragile Freddie Fox) would rather leave home than face his mother's disgust after losing his virginity to a prostitute who gave him VD.
Yet neither the fizzing Duff nor the stricken Cusack, who each deliver exquisitely judged portrayals of respectively riotous and repressed personalities, manage to anchor a play that was originally written for radio and despite the best efforts of Hildegard Bechtler's two-tier set design, appears lost on the Old Vic's cavernous stage.
There is no whispering voice saying "See?" Nonetheless, even a diluted Rattigan can lash out at English attitudes. Here though, the target is not so much the public's view of sex that hits home but those who rush to judgement before not after the trial.
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