Cause Célèbre – June 2011


By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date Wednesday 1st June 2011

I must make it clear from the outset that this production is considerably better than my experience rating above suggests. We had to rebook for this one due to ill-health the week of our original tickets, so for once we were back in row R, level with the start of the circle, and much further back than our usual E or F. As a result, I had difficulty hearing much of the dialogue, and a wonky headset didn’t improve matters in the second half. Also, I’d forgotten how much visual detail is lost from that distance, and I find it hard to describe the performances at all, it was such a blur. Even so, I got the gist of the story, or rather stories, as there were two central female characters juxtaposed in this piece; one, Alma Rattenbury, a real-life figure who stood trial for the murder of her husband, and the other, Edith Davenport, a fictitious woman who in the course of the play divorces her husband, loses her son, and, possibly the hardest one of all, loses her black and white judgemental certainty about life. The trial sections were easier to hear, as barristers need a powerful delivery and good diction, and as the bulk of these scenes were in the second half I found I enjoyed myself a lot more after the interval. I still missed some of the humour; the rest of audience was having a better time than me, judging by the amount of laughter I heard.

The set was quite complicated. It had to be, because the action moved around a lot, giving us flashbacks to the night of the murder as well as alternating between the courtroom and people’s homes. There were chairs and tables, a drinks cabinet, a gramophone, stairs and walls, and a judge’s bench for the court scenes. An upper level was used for a scene in the prison, but mostly the different locations were indicated by lighting different parts of the stage. This did allow for quick changes of scene, but I found the overall effect a bit stark, with high, open spaces dwarfing the small figures.

I wasn’t entirely sure about the structure of the play itself. It seemed bitty in the beginning, starting with the swearing in of Edith, then jumping between the two women’s lives to show the events prior to the murder. The contrast between the two leads didn’t really get going until Edith’s surprise assertion that she couldn’t be on this particular jury because she was prejudiced against Alma, and so wouldn’t be able to give her a fair trial – perhaps if this was done right at the start, it might create greater tension throughout the play. As it is, that part happens at the start of the second half, and left me a little confused. Was that bit before the swearing in? Or had the swearing in already happened, and now Edith was trying to get out of her civic duty? Anyway, the trial scenes in the second half gave the play a better structure, and were more entertaining on the whole. We did get flashbacks to the events of the murder, which were acted out in front with the court behind in darkness, and these made it very clear that Alma hadn’t been involved in the murder at all, but that her behaviour in general had influenced the police to view her as guilty. With the jury advised by the judge, and defence counsel for Alma, that they were only trying her for murder, and not for loose living, there was only one verdict they could return. As we didn’t know the result beforehand, I was still tense as we waited for the decision, so it was a relief that she got off. Even so, it didn’t surprise me that she took her own life shortly afterwards – she didn’t seem the most stable of people to begin with, and despite her feelings for her son, she evidently felt suicide was the only way out.

The performances were at least fine, and several were much better than that. Nicholas Jones was perfect as Alma’s defence counsel, and with his stronger delivery I caught almost all of his funny lines; he had plenty of them as well. I liked Lucy Robinson as Stella Morrison, Edith’s sister. She had a more relaxed view of some things than Edith, who was totally uptight, although Stella was an out-and-out snob. The worst thing about the Rattenbury murder for her was that Alma was involved with a servant! She placed a bet on the outcome of the trial, £600 at 3/1 on Alma being found guilty, based on the disparaging way Edith refers to Alma after day one of the trial. No wonder she was unhappy when Alma’s acquitted.

Niamh Cusack and Anne-Marie Duff came across well as the contrasting leads, even though I didn’t hear all of their lines, and I’m hoping that I get to see and hear this play properly sometime in the future.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

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