'I'm afraid living in is quite out of the question,' Alma Rattenbury explains to George, the 17-year-old working class boy she recruits through a newspaper ad as a servant/chauffeur. She says it, but the way she sidles up to him with a knowing look and ruffles her hair makes it clear she means the exact opposite.
Subtext is everything in the well-made plays of Terence Rattigan, now the focus of a well-deserved centennial binge in English theatre. Shunned and despised by the critics for the last 20 years of his career after being feted for the first 20, he is now being rediscovered as the master of filtering emotion through dialogue. 'It is the implicit rather than the explicit that gives life to a scene,' he wrote, adding that the most vital element of playwriting was to work out 'what not to have your actors say, and how best not to have them say it'. There are plenty of playwrights who haven't yet discovered the truth of what Rattigan says.
After triumphantly running off with the Olivier award for Best Revival for After The Dance at the National Theatre, Thea Sharrock has another crack at a little-known Rattigan play, this time one that was written and produced shortly before the playwright's death from cancer in 1976. Cause Celebre has some terrific dialogue, including the first meeting between Alma and George and the insincere robing-room bonhomie between competitive barristers at the Old Bailey. Fascinating though it is, it's flawed by the standards of Rattigan's best work for two reasons. Firstly, it's a stage adaptation of a radio play which cuts swiftly between scenes and demands a very large cast. Unusually for a Rattigan stage play, it breaks out of the realistic framework in which he was most at home, using radio-style flashbacks and transitions of time and place. We see the trial of Alma and George and the murder of Alma's husband simultaneously. The transition from radio to stage was something of a compromise, and Rattigan himself sensed that his final version was far from perfect.
The second problem is that Rattigan tells two stories and doesn't quite succeed in bringing them together. The murder and subsequent trial of Alma and George form one half of the play, in which Rattigan sticks fairly closely to the facts of the case. The Rattenbury trial sold millions of newspapers and drew enormous queues to the Old Bailey in May 1935. Alma (in real life a Canadian, not a Brit) was found not guilty of murdering her elderly third husband Francis, a retired architect, at the Villa Madeira in Bournemouth, while her teenage lover George was sentenced to hang. Before his sentence was commuted, Alma stabbed herself to death. On its own, it provides the ingredients for the kind of suspenseful murder melodrama which flourished for decades in the West End until television came along and stole it. Rattigan's real interest is not in the murder itself, but in combining Alma's story with that of the entirely fictional Edith Davenport, who becomes forewoman of the jury at her trial.
Edith's tangled story of divorce, sexual estrangement and a destructive dependance on her son Tony, the same age as George, is classic Rattigan material and is largely autobiographical. The playwright never broke his famous discretion about his own private life to reveal the full details, and it hardly matters. The problem is that dramatically, the story of Edith and Tony the story of Alma and George run in parallel, but at arm's length. We don't see Edith either in the courtroom, or in the jury room, only speaking to her family. The story of Tony is a subplot that isn't properly resolved either. Rattigan, with his innate craftsmanship, would have been well aware of these problems in yoking the two narratives together.
This production is worth seeing for a host of reasons, principally a riveting performance by Anne-Marie Duff as the flirty Alma. If you've seen her on the big screen playing John Lennon's lost mum in Nowhere Boy, you'll have a flavour of what she's capable of on stage. She's compulsively watchable at every single moment, as she was in the title role of Shaw's Saint Joan at the National a few years ago. All the large cast are very strong, particularly Niamh Cusack as the repressed Edith. I was reminded of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Nicholas Jones and the rest of the courtroom squad of barristers, clerks, warders and judges make the most of Rattigan's skill in individualising their parts.
Sharrock's direction is excellent, as always, showing her usual respect for the writer's text. While Rattigan's reputation was still in the doldrums in 1976 as the victim of changing theatrical tastes, the passage of time allows us to see his virtues much more clearly. Some scenes, particularly the one involving Tony's confession to Edith, seem melodramatic and dated, but the passage of time helps a modern audience to treat the play as a period piece. Rattigan grew up as a gay adolescent in the 1930s, and the anguish of his own life in the closet gave him the raw material to explore the emotions of his characters. Stiff upper lips are out of fashion today and the social barriers of the 1930s are less pronounced, but George's violent anger at being treated sometimes as a lover and sometimes as a mere servant still rings true.