Theatre: An open and shut case

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Theatre: Cause Celebre

Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

In a powerful programme note to his brilliantly lucid and involving revival of Cause Celebre, Neil Bartlett finds a soulmate for this, Terence Rattigan's last West End play, in another drama from the 1970s - though one from a playwright of a younger and reputedly more radical generation. David Hare's Plenty and Cause Celebre are both, Bartlett argues, pieces "where a single woman's desires... do fatal damage to our perception of how England functions".

Rattigan, I feel, comes out of that fascinating comparison rather better than Hare, in whose plays the voice of wronged-by-Britain womanhood is occasionally drowned out by the sound of the author patting himself on the back in moral self-congratulation.

There is, by contrast, no lecturing stridency in Cause Celebre, a play which is based on the real-life case from the 1930s of Alma Rattenbury, and which shows how, when trying to take the rap for the murder of her elderly husband by her 17-year-old working-class chauffeur lover, a middle-aged woman finds herself on trial at the Old Bailey - not so much for the killing as for the crime of being a female with a sex drive.

In a manner that refuses ever to resolve into a simple pattern of opposites, Rattigan counterpoints the fate of good-time girl Alma and her toyboy with the (invented) story of the repressed middle-class lady who honourably tries to be released from serving on the jury because she knows that her own passionate tug-of-love relationship with her 17-year-old son can't help but colour her perception of the case.

Amanda Harris's marvellously attractive and moving portrayal of Alma shows you a woman whose humorous, actressy, silk-pyjama'd hunger for life has never hardened into armour-plated disregard for the feelings of others. There's wit in the raunchiness, vulnerability shaking beneath her courageous defiance in court. She indicates a desolately touching realisation of the wider wrong she may have done the far from blameless 17- year-old youth, even as she allows herself an incredulously scornful grin at the damaging, near-misogynist tactics of her own defence team, who have to paint her as a witchy sexual predator in order to focus the jury's mind on her innocence with regard to the actual murder.

This expertly shaded performance and that of Diane Fletcher - who brings a beautiful sad dignity to the concurrent enlightenment and domestic disillusion of the lady juror - stand at the centre of a staging that shows thorough understanding of the material. In its nightmare- like doubling of parts (the murdered man becomes the judge) and in its artful collapsing of space (Alma and lover, in one flashback, go to bed on what is the judge's throne), this production heightens your sense of the play as a brilliantly blasphemous diagram; an invasion of the courtroom setting and of courtroom-drama convention by a raw re-enacted reality that puts the legal system's own values on trial. This Cause Celebre is a definite cause for celebration.

To 4 April. Lyric: 0181-741 2311

Paul Taylor

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