Review – Cause Célèbre, Old Vic

Monday 28 March 2011

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.

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.


13 Responses to “Review – Cause Célèbre, Old Vic”

  1. Jay Says:

    “Edit Davenport”? Looks like you need another edit, Edith.

  2. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    ‘ark at us droppin’ our aitches guv

  3. James Says:

    Freddie Fox’s grandmother is Mrs Worthington’s daughter, the one Noel was so certain shouldn’t go on the stage!

    • Indeed. Fascinating: “Frederick Samson Fox (after the red-bearded Victorian industrialist Samson Fox who made the family’s fortune in corrugated iron) is the fourth generation in a theatrical dynasty that started with the playwright Frederick Lonsdale, his great-grandfather on the maternal side. Angela Worthington, his grandmother, was the precocious girl Noël Coward described in the music-hall song ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington’, who married Robin Fox, the theatrical agent. Their sons are Edward, star of The Day of the Jackal and Edward & Mrs Simpson; James, star of The Servant and Performance; and Robert, producer of plays including Another Country and films Iris and The Hours.”

  4. Lord Andrew Lloyds Slipper Sniffer Says:

    Whingers, whingers – you DEFINITELY need a proof-reader. This review is cumberbatched with typos and other howlers. In fact, it’s going to be the book for my next mega-musical.

  5. Bev Says:

    I once worked (in a rather awful play) with the beautiful and intelligent Lydia Fox, sister to Laurence, and wife of the extremely funny Richard Ayoade.

  6. sandown Says:

    And “Simon Grey” was Simon Gray, in real life.

  7. Rev Stan Says:

    It was a bit lacklustre wasn’t it? Glad I saw Flare Path after seeing this.

  8. Lord Andrew Lloyds Slipper Sniffer Says:

    Rattigan wrote the very underrated book for the 1969 musical version of Goodbye, Mr Chips. Now that is a movie that deserves a DVD release:

  9. Vindice Says:

    Inclined to agree about the strange staging but for me this is one of Rattigan’s most effective and moving plays. I admit to being influenced by having seen the original production which was the first play I ever saw in London ( I think I was about 6 at the time…..honestly Phil).Besides the aforementioned Glynis Johns the cast ‘stars’ were Helen Lindsay as Edit (sic) Davenport and Lee Montague as the defence counsel. Despite my golden memories I thought the cast did the play proud although some key lines about power and relative age in relationships were thrown away. Johns in the original was clearly older than Duff but was also more sympathetic a character.

    I did notice an unusual number of the Old Vic cast have appearances in Midsomer Murders in their credits – just like Rattigan really – no ‘foreigeners’ just the usual bunch of murderers, adulterers, fornicators, snobs and lawyers.

  10. jmc Says:

    Gray’s Molly is a play well worth reviving – the lead role is a gift for an actress & it’s a much more intense exploration of the case than Rattigan’s. I hope we don’t have to wait for Gray’s centenary…

  11. Lulu Says:

    Some of it was indeed listless; and clearly not Rattigan’s best play.

    But who cares if the characters are likeable or not? It’s of no consequence to the quality of the piece. Clearly Edith wasn’t supposed to be particularly likeable. It’s not a matter of ‘rooting’ for who shall come up top. It seems a little tawdry to suggest that a play, or any work of art for that matter, should give a clear view as to who the benign protagonist it. Pah! If you don’t know with what character your moral compass should point, maybe this is in some way condusive to the point of the play?

    I shook with laughter all the way through and not at the jokes.
    After the Dance on the other hand was glorious.

  12. Max Says:

    This is a second rate play, very well acted. We never get to know or understand George Wood (in real life Stoner), and the bedroom scene in Act 2 serves only to show us his pecs, not his character.

    Also, I do not buy Edith’s prudish dislike of sex or sexuality: the real life characters are – or should be – interesting enough without this half-hearted character thrown in.

    That said, Duff and Cusask in, respectively, a good and a bad role are excellent. But when the denouement comes from the mouthpiece of a radiogram, and when, earlier, Cuasck’s husband, played by Simon Chandler, articulates his creed (that it is better to suffer from living a rackety existence than survive by playing safe), it would be much more effective had Rattigan done this through active dialogue rather than through the husband reading his own letter aloud.

    Finally, Alma must have married her husband for a reason. This may well have been that the real lfie Mr Rattenbury was an extremely famous architect (responsible for the Government buildings in Victoria, Canada), recently fallen on hard times, which could possibly have explained Alma’s antipathy.

    But no: all you get here is a half-cock attempt to make Alma sympathetic without fully getting beneath her skin. Rattigan’s well-known sympathy for the underdog is bteer appreciated in a ‘proper’ play like his masterpiece the Browning Version, rather than in this adaptation from a radio drama, only brought anywhere near life by the performances of its excellent cast.

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