Cause Célèbre, Old Vic, London


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.

To 11 June (0844 871 7628)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing