Tuesday 22nd March 2011: Stephen Sondheim’s 81st birthday (and by an ironic coincidence also Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 63rd).
What a relief. We can relax again knowing we no longer need to assist Mr Sondheim in celebrating his 8oth. It has been a too, too exhausting year.
But now Mr Rattigan is making similar demands on us from beyond the grave in commemoration of what would be his 100th.
We had already tooted into our party blowers for his Flare Path a few days earlier. Now we were required to quaff bubbly again at the Old Vic for his last play (originally for radio), written in 1977, Cause Célèbre.
CC is based upon real events – the notorious murder in 1935 in Bournemouth of Francis Rattenbury (here played all too briefly by Benedict Cumberbatch’s father Timothy Carlton*), possibly by his wife “nympho, dipso songwriter” Alma (Anne-Marie Duff) and/or their 18 year old hired help, Percy “George” Stoner (Tommy McDonnell) with whom Alma was having an affair.
The sub-plot (as if one were needed) involves Niamh Cusack (rather effective thought Phil) as Edith Davenport, the jury forewoman who initially tries to get out of serving on the grounds that she cannot be impartial about Alma Rattenbury. Indeed she despises her for her moral laxity.
Andrew thought Edit Davenport was a bit barmy but Phil thought she was trying to be an upright citizen of the community but neither Whinger was reallly very sure whether we were supposed to be rooting for Alma or not. She didn’t seem like a very nice lady. But then nor did Cusack’s character who was bent on divorcing her hapless husband for infidelity and determined to prevent him from seeing their boy (Freddie Fox).
Rarely have so many unsympathetic, unlikeable characters been gathered together on one stage together.
The only person we really liked was Alma’s defence lawyer played splendidly by Nicholas Jones. Oh and – all to briefly – the wonderful Jenny Galloway who makes something of her nothing role as Alma’s companion/housekeeper by turning her into Mrs Danvers.
We confess to not finding ourselves terribly engaged.
Phil was reminded of the “Dingo’s got my baby!” case and especially its treatment in the film A Cry in the Dark; how cases are tried by press and public before coming to trial. But Rattigan’s play is a bit all over the place with its flashbacks and parallel story. And why does the stern warder, who is so intent on following prison rules, convert so abruptly to becoming Alma’s main champion just because she sees her turn on the waterworks?
We weren’t helped by the staging: Hildegard Bechtler has ripped rows out of the auditorium thrusting the stage forward but director Thea Sharrock (who worked wonders with Rattigan’s After the Dance last year) has set much of the action at the back of it. Even from our third row seats (row F) it all seemed to be happening a long way away. A couple of scenes are staged on a giant dumb waiter that descends during other scenes so slowly the food would be surely tepid on arrival which is not unlike the action that is played out high up on them. The depth of the stage also swallows up much of the sound so it was quite a strain to hear sometimes. Anyway, preview, blah blah blah.
On the plus side there is a minor coup de théâtre of sorts, at least unless we missed something. It would be unfair to reveal what, but it does involve Cumberbatch Snr.
The Old Vic didn’t help improve our moods with its new officious policy of not letting you take your overpriced drinks outside the theatre during the interval. Where you are supposed to leave them goodness knows. Of course, what you can do is take your drink out of the un-bouncered side door from the Pit Bar so it’s not really a problem. Just annoying.
Not much célèbrer here. If you want to tinkerty tonk for Terry, go see Flare Path.
*1. Fancy a game of Happy Families? You could do worse than pop down to the Old Vic. There’s not much happiness amongst the families on stage but there’s a host of theatrical dynasties on display, without even a whiff of a Redgrave.
- Nicholas Jones: brother of Gemma Jones, son of Griffith Jones
- Timothy Carlton: father of Benedict Cumberbatch, husband of Wanda Ventham
- Anne-Marie Duff: wife of James McAvoy
- Freddie Fox: Cripes! Son Edward Fox and Joanna David, brother of Emilia Fox, nephew of James Fox and Robert Fox, cousin of Laurence Fox (who is husband of Billie Piper), grandson of Robin Fox, great grandson of Frederick Lonsdale etc etc
- Niamh Cusak: wife of Finbar Lynch, daughter of Cyril Cusack, sister of Sinéad Cusack and Sorcha Cusack, and half sister to Catherine Cusack, sister-in-law of Jeremy Irons
- Tristram Wymark: Son of Patrick Wymark, brother of Midsomer Murders actress Jane Wymark
- Lucy Robinson: daughter of Robert Robinson
- Jenny Galloway: sister of George Galloway**
2. Simon Grey tackled the Rattenbury case in his 1977 play Molly which turned up in the West End a year after Rattigan’s version (with Glynis Johns). Phil saw it with Billy Whitelaw playing Grey’s version of Alma Rattenbury.
** Not really.