Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Cheating the noose

Incredibly boring. That’s how a cracking courtroom drama seems at first. Case closed. We know whodunnit already. Alma Rattenbury, a luscious middle-aged nympho, has bashed in the skull of her deaf old husband with the help of a teenage builder, George, who shares her bed.

Incredibly boring. That’s how a cracking courtroom drama seems at first. Case closed. We know whodunnit already. Alma Rattenbury, a luscious middle-aged nympho, has bashed in the skull of her deaf old husband with the help of a teenage builder, George, who shares her bed.

Incredibly boring. That’s how a cracking courtroom drama seems at first. Case closed. We know whodunnit already. Alma Rattenbury, a luscious middle-aged nympho, has bashed in the skull of her deaf old husband with the help of a teenage builder, George, who shares her bed.

Newspapers carry lurid reports of a drunken Alma dancing in her husband’s blood and trying to seduce the policemen who came to arrest her. This bad-taste orgy of violence took place in Bournemouth in 1935 but the authorities gave it ‘a West End transfer’ by selecting the Old Bailey for the trial. Crowds of journalists, prudes and villain-oglers thronged to the high court to see the depraved sexpot swing for her crime.

The young Terence Rattigan was fascinated by the case but it wasn’t till the 1970s that he dramatised it for radio, and in the final year of his life he adapted the radio script for the stage under the title Cause Célèbre. That arduous creative route march has left some painful blisters on the script. Instead of the ground plan of ‘the well-made play’ — a single setting and a time-span of a day or two — Rattigan has to grapple with a dozen locations and a narrative sequence covering several years. So the play’s structure lacks the vibrant internal beauty we’re used to with Rattigan.

And the staging by Hildegard Bechtler is dark, airy and a touch morbid at times, and the visual harmony is marred by a split-level effect which locates several scenes in a sort of suspended tree house high above the stage.

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