Cause Célèbre, Old Vic, London
Rocket to the Moon, NT Lyttelton, London
One-on-One Festival, BAC, London
A downbeat Rattigan revival tells the true story of Alma Rattenbury, her young lover, and their murder trial
Sunday 03 April 2011
Anne-Marie Duff is slinking downstairs in fluid silk and scarlet lipstick. Cause Célèbre sees the Old Vic adding to the centenary surge of Terence Rattigan revivals. And his final play – written in the Seventies but set in 1935 – is based on the real-life case of Alma Rattenbury.
She gained notoriety, at the age of 39, as a suburban femme fatale. Having an affair with her 18-year-old chauffeur, George, she ended up in the dock with him, jointly accused of murdering her elderly husband. Even before the jury had heard the evidence, a scandalised press and vituperative crowds – amassing at the Old Bailey – concluded that it was Alma who should hang, for seducing and manipulating a naive young lad.
Duff is the best thing about this courtroom drama, wherein Rattigan (a gay playwright) essentially defends the sexually unorthodox Mrs Rattenbury as less wicked than conservative England presumed. When Duff first sets eyes on Tommy McDonnell's strapping George, she invests Alma's coquettishness with a fascinating kind of innocence. Flashing smiles with her golden curls thrown back, she clearly doesn't feel guilty about her fling, maintaining what looks like an affectionate but sexless marriage.
In other respects, alas, Thea Sharrock's production will disappoint anyone expecting a rival to Rattigan's After the Dance – recently staged at the NT by the same director. Sharrock certainly hasn't drawn top performances from her cast, which includes Niamh Cusack as a prudish juror. Stiffly lining up characters on the apron stage doesn't help, but the play is also to blame.
A drama originally for radio, and adapted for stage, with a struggle, by Rattigan himself, is here landed with a lumbering set, its motorised second storey inching up and down, as if it had a mind to squelch the scenes going on beneath it. Most radical are the moral complexities we're left to weigh up, with each lover trying to protect the other, claiming to be the sole killer with no accomplice.
In Clifford Odets' 1938 Rocket to the Moon, Ben (Joseph Millson) is a maritally and professionally downtrodden dentist. Approaching 40, he becomes besotted with Cleo (Jessica Raine), his 19-year-old secretary. She's also being pursued by Ben's pushier father-in-law (Nicholas Woodeson).
Ben's infatuation coincides with a sweltering New York summer, but Angus Jackson's production takes time to warm up. No doubt intimacy is hard to generate in an echoey, high-ceilinged waiting room. Raine must, it seems, shout, which isn't alluring. I also struggled to believe that Millson could be entranced by Cleo's stereotypically tarty mincing and preening. But it could be that Raine just needs to reveal more endearing vulnerability between her amusingly brash faux pas. Though it may improve, the pacing seemed rushed on press night, making Odets' dialogue sound, sometimes, like a string of maxims. For all that, Rocket to the Moon is winningly humorous and poignant too, with Ben's repressed desperation beautifully conveyed.
Finally, I engaged in some unorthodox intimacies myself at BAC's boundary-pushing One-on-One Festival, agreeing to be bathed naked then embraced by a stranger – a performance artist called Adrian Howells. Maybe I never quite shed my paranoia about whether the tub had been properly scrubbed. That aside, I found The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding and Holding charmingly gentle (and completely non-sexual). We had a quiet giggle about this being pretty weird for an actor and a critic, as he cuddled me like a baby and stroked my head. I think this could also be – for anyone feeling unhappy with their body – a comforting experience.
By comparison, some other one-to-one experimentalists seem socially and artistically underdeveloped. Surrender yourself to The Collection of Fears and Desires and you'll probingly be quizzed about what you dread and yearn for, only to be left seeing yourself out. Where the Wild Things Sleep is mock-scary fun, leading into a darkened bedroom as a wolf's tail whisks out of sight and you climb up into a swinging bunk. But then you're annoyingly left in the lurch.
Kazuko Hohki's little teaser is more technically sophisticated as you recline on a futon and a radio strikes up a conversation with you. I also enjoyed playing cat-and-mouse in a hotel suite with flickering lights and a ghoulish businesswoman (Hannah Ringham) who materialises through walls. All in all, an adventurous medley. Last week, the Arts Council cut funding for the BAC by 11 per cent. At least this new enterprise, fostering artists-in-residence, will save the latter a few bob, lodging them in the One-on-One bedrooms when the party is over.
'Cause Célèbre' (0844 871 7628) to 11 Jun; 'Rocket to the Moon' (020-7452 3000) to 21 Jun; One-on-One Festival (020-7223 2223) to 9 Apr
Kate Bassett takes a dip in Wastwater, Simon Stephens' new Royal Court play
Cheek by Jowl's startling Russian production of The Tempest (with surtitles) is at the Barbican, London (7 to 16 Apr). Prospero's isle is a realm of tough love and power-grabbing, yet with humour and enchanting music. Mike Leigh restages his slice-of-life Ecstasy (1979) with slow-moving but exquisite naturalism at Hampstead Theatre (to 9 Apr).
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