Friday, 27 May 2011

Cause Celebre - Old Vic, Thursday 26th May 2011


Cause Célèbre is based on the true story of Alma Rattenbury who went on trial with her 18-year-old lover for the murder of her husband. Condemned by the public more for her seduction of a young boy than for any involvement she may have had in her husband's death, Alma's fate is left in the hands of the socially and sexually repressed jury forewoman, Edith.
Alma Rattenbury: Anne-Marie Duff
Edith Davenport - Niamh Cusack
Stella Morrison - Lucy Robinson
John Davenport - Simon Chandler
George Wood - Tommy McDowell
Irene Riggs - Jenny Galloway
Francis Rattenbury - Timothy Carlton
O'Connor - Nicholas Jones

Creative Team
Written by Terence Rattigan
Director - Thea Sharrock
Designer -Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting- Bruno Poet
Music -Adrian Johnston
Sound - Ian Dickinson

This, I think, is going to be one of those occasions when I find it difficult to separate my feelings about a play from my feelings about a production of it. Cause Celebre was never going to be a great play, adapted as it was (with considerable difficulty, apparently) by Rattigan from his own radio play of the same name. This has left the play with a terribly static format, a feeling which must have been even more pronounced during the 1970s when it was first produced. It was the time of Angry Young Kitchen Sinks Looking Back In Anger (towards the refrigerator perhaps). Set in the mid-30s, it must have seemed very old-fashioned even then, but nearly 40 years on, it seems even more so – “period”, even. It seems to have acquired a patina of dust, which you can almost smell in this slightly cheap-looking production. There’s a feeling of sub-Agatha-Christie-Witness-For-The-Prosecution-offseason-Repertory-Company about the whole thing, both play and production. Some plays really don’t age well, and Cause Celebre is starting to lose its hair and develop liver spots. So we are faced with a play originally written for radio but adapted for the stage, first produced in the 1970s but set in the 30’s – the prognosis isn’t great. The fact that this has obviously been hauled out of the cupboard on the back of the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of After the Dance in an attempt to cash in on the Rattigan Centenary isn’t going to invite favourable comparisons, although both are directed by the same Director. You’d never know – this is not Thea Sharrock’s finest hour. The dialogue itself also seems strangely at odds with the 30s setting, almost as if Rattigan was trying to prove that he could be “contemporary” but failing miserably, and ending up with a chimera – neither fish nor fowl.

The production is also hampered by being, I think, the wrong play in the wrong venue. The Old Vic’s is way too large for a drama that seems to call out for an intimate “in your face” setting – perhaps somewhere like the Almeida or the Donmar, so that the audience feel that they are eavesdropping on private conversations or sitting in the public gallery of Court No. 1.  It is, after all, about a secret affair which leads to domestic murder, and several scenes take place in the claustrophobic setting of a courtroom at the Old Bailey. The few bits and pieces of furniture seem completely adrift on the cavernous stage, and the fact that the proscenium is surrounded by gingerbread gilding makes the play itself seem like a relic from a bygone age. In a tighter, more modern setting it would have considerably more impact. The Old Vic’s enormous auditorium is a double whammy; in their efforts to project to the back row of the upper circle, most of the cast fall into the trap of projecting to The Cut, Westminster Bridge Road, the Thames Path and all points north. What is essentially domestic dialogue gains nothing by being shouted. The difficulties in reaching the audience don’t stop with dialogue but continue into physical gestures – at least two characters seemed to be portraying manic windmills last night. Sure, when you’re having histrionics its ok to flail your arms about, but talking to your son about when and where he caught something nasty from a cheap prossie doesn’t need to be delivered at concert pitch – what would the neighbours think? Pas devant les enfants et les domestices, sil vous plait!

All the shouting, mugging and arm waving tip some characters over the fine line into caricature, of which Nicholas Jones as Rattenbury's legal counsel, O'Connor, is particularly guilty, m'lud.  This is a role which requires gravitas, that almost indefinable quality of knowing seriousness which finer actors like Leo McKern or, back in this mists of time, Charles Laughton would have delivered in spades.  Jones plays the role as an avuncular, red-faced type (and is particularly guilty of windmill impressions), when the role would benefit immensely from being stiller and more dangerously focussed, throwing his jolly out-of-court persona into shaper relief.  Lucy Robinson as Stella is hampered by her sterotypical character and dialogue, and makes it all a bit too fruity-Tunbridge-Wells.  Tristram Wymark, understuding the role of the Judge, lacked the stage experience to position himself fully in the spotlight during the court scenes, so we were faced with an apparently headless Judge ironically poised to deliver the death sentence.  Anne-Marie Duff rather overdoes the Vamp in her earlier scenes in an attempt to project the character over the footlights, but does the histrionics and court scenes brilliantly, while Niamh Cusack seems to be channelling Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter.  Absolutely everyone is upstaged by Jenny Galloway who turns a tiny, practically invisble part into Mrs Danvers.  Galloway seems to be cornering the market in tiny, practically invisible parts - she played a very similar role in After The Dance - and deserves more exposure.

I can't get away from the feeling that a slightly less cheap-looking production, in a more appropriate venue, would have done Cause Celebre rather more favours than it is currently getting at the Old Vic. 

What the critics thought:

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These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.