Cause Célèbre was Terence Rattigan's last play, completed in 1976 and first produced in the next year. It has received a stunning revival this season at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith under the effective direction of the Lyric's artistic director, Neil Bartlett.
Cinematic in its structure, non-linear and even circular, Cause Célèbre was a departure for Rattigan from the well-made plays for which he was so well known (The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948) and, especially, Separate Tables (1954). Certainly influenced by the younger playwrights of the 60s and 70s (Orton and Pinter come easily to mind), Rattigan has in Cause Célèbre taken the very structure of which he was a master and turned it, if not inside out, then certainly on its prismatic side -- allowing the dramatic thought of the piece to dictate its forward action.
The play is based on the real story of Alma Rattenbury, who in 1935 was acquitted of murdering her husband, thirty years her senior, and George Stoner (renamed Wood in the play), her eighteen year old lover, who was found guilty of the crime. Soon after the trial was complete and George had been condemned to hang, Alma took her own life -- never to learn that George's death sentence had been reduced to a life sentence.
The dramatic center of the piece rests on the contrast Rattigan established between Alma Rattenbury and a wholly fictional character -- Edith Davenport -- a repressed woman of late Victorian social and sexual values who is the foreman of the jury (and the only juror in the play) and whose own son, the same age as George Wood, leaves her for a life of (in her view) debauchery with her estranged husband and the lad's father.
Perhaps the strongest irony of the play is the fact that Alma was condemned by the public more for seducing an "English Boy" (Edith makes the point that he might have been the son of any of us -- as her son turns suicidal) than for initiating if not carrying out the brutal murder of her husband.
Director Neil Bartlett has placed the action of Cause Célèbre on an effectively turned out unit set (designed by Ray Smith) in which all three of the major locations are played : Alma's place, Edith's home and the courtroom. Both Diane Fletcher as Edith Davenport and Amanda Harris (a young Joan Rivers in looks and even body language) as Alma Rattenbury deliver charged performances which intelligently and emotionally support the fractured well-made structure that Rattigan has created. A woman's play from the get-go (see Amy's View ), Delia Lindsay's portrait of Stella Morrison, another fictional character who cannot fathom Edith's change of heart (Edith brings the jury to a verdict of innocent for Alma), is a gem of a supporting role.
On the male side of the ledger, the outstanding performer is veteran John Quentin who plays both the murdered Francis Rattenbury and the Judge. Less effective -- whether because of the writing or the performances is hard to tell -- are the two young men: Laurence Mitchell as Alma's boy/toy lover and Nitzan Sharron as Edith's foundering son.
In sum, the Lyric's revival of Cause Célèbre is a generally effective rendering of a play that, while arising out of the soil of the well-made play of the fifties, foreshadows the fractured and cinematic stage works of the seventies and eighties.
by Terence Rattigan
Directed by Neil Bartlett
With Diane Fletcher and Amanda Harris
Sets and Costumes: Rae Smith
Lyric Theatre Hammersmith
London W6 0QL (0181-741-2311)
Opened 2/5/98 and seen at that time by Joseph Green