We theatre hacks are running out of superlatives to describe the current flowering of Terrence Rattigan revivals around the centenary of the writer’s birth. Notorious in his own day for his ability to dissect the morality of the midcentury Establishment, Rattigan follows in the grand tradition of Wilde and Coward in crafting witty, sexually ambiguous and quintessentially English social dramas, scored through with darker, more urgent concerns with the search for a moral existence.
It would be a cruel irony if this run of productions were to have the effect of lifting Rattigan’s oeuvre out of a temporary unpopularity, only to leave it suffering from overexposure. But with revivals as sparkling as Thea Sharrock’s airy, effervescent production Cause Célèbre to make his case, odds are that Rattigan will remain a force.
Sharrock never allows the detailed comedy of manners to distract from her task of simply telling a story. This is the story of Alma Rattenbury (Anne-Marie Duff), a woman whose self-indulgent affair with a boy 20 years her junior leads them both to stand trial for the bloody murder of her husband. The real life case really was the cause célèbre of its day – not even the names are changed – but what Rattigan imaginatively fleshes out for us is the effect of the scandal on Bournemouth genteel society, and especially the emotional life of the puritanical forewoman of the jury, the fictional Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack).
Anne-Marie Duff is luminous as Alma Rattenbury. Not since Cate Blanchett in Plenty, twelve years ago, has the vast Old Vic stage been lit up by such a compelling portrayal of a woman’s adventurous pride and sexual fragility.