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Review of ‘Cause Celebre’

By Hilary Cordery

Based on the true and sensational story of a woman who, together with her (much) younger lover, were jointly charged with the murder of her husband, Terrence Rattigan’s ‘Cause Celebre’ was an ambitious production for BLT. Director Mike Savill had his work cut out in bringing to life what was originally a radio play, and it is to his credit that this was a very successful and impressive production notwithstanding the undeniable staging challenges.

In the lead role of Alma Rattenbury, the scarlet woman of this 1930’s drama, Emma Sweeney was compelling. Managing with great skill to win our sympathy – no mean feat given that it would be easy to see Alma as nothing more than a frivolous, manipulative cradle-snatcher who cheats on her husband with impunity – Sweeney captured the complexity of the character brilliantly. I loved her vulgarity and hedonism as much as the vulnerability and generosity of spirit she displayed in the court scenes. A great job.

At the heart of the story is the stormy, destructive affair between Alma and her young lover George. I would have liked greater intensity and more obvious lust between George (Jo Dominic) and Alma, but Dominic nonetheless successfully caught the brashness and self-confidence of the character; all the more impressive given that Dominic stepped very late into the role.

Sue Williams gave a powerful performance as the moralistic, repressed Edith Davenport, the unwitting jury foreman at Alma’s trial. Williams left us in no doubt both of Edith’s suffocating love for her son Tony (Simon Bigg) and her utter disdain for “that woman” which Williams almost spat across the stage. The contrast between Edith and Alma was beautifully realised.

As Edith’s unfaithful and estranged husband John, Steve Williams’ performance was confident and assured, as one would expect from such an experienced actor, whilst as son Tony, Simon Bigg gave a convincing portrayal of a sexually diffident young man who seeks worldly experience with a prostitute. Roxanna Graves (Stella) completed Edith’s inner circle as an impressively arrogant, if not downright bitchy, best friend.

Some of my favourite scenes were those at the Old Bailey. Bruce Wallace as Alma’s defence barrister O’Connor, perfectly captured the intonation, rhythm and sophistry of legal argument and deserved the title “silk” – even in slippers! Patrick Neylan as his opponent Croom-Johnson was suitably unpleasant and seemed equally comfortable as the legal Rottweiler. Jonathan Evans (Casswell, whose diction particularly impressed), James Mercer (Montagu) and Arthur Rochester (the Judge) completed a talented legal bench.

Other supporting roles were well played by Michael Baker (the doomed, ageing husband Francis Rattenbury), Emma Kerby-Evans, (Alma’s loyal but suspicious maid Irene), Harrison North (Randolph), Fleur Buckley (a suitably intimidating prison warden), Mark Dempsey, (the police sergeant), and David Howkins (the Clerk of the Court). And Barney Tisdall as Alma’s son Christopher merits particular mention for the confidence and presence he brought to the stage for one so young.

The play moves through time and varied locations. The set and staging were therefore always going to be tricky. Set designer Jan Greenough rose admirably to the challenge and divided the small BLT stage into different segments which worked well, in particular by the use of different levels. I was less sure however of the scene changes where lighting came up (presumably to allow the actors to see) and then went into blackout numerous times which I found distracting and slowed down the pace.

1930’s costumes were very well sourced by Kerstin Beard – I had pyjama envy when Alma first appeared in a beautiful yellow silk ensemble! I would however have reached for the iron with the barristers’ gowns, O’Connor’s in particular.

This was a production which gripped from start to finish and was extremely well executed by a talented cast in the hands of a clearly experienced director. As Alma says: “This is a lovely world and we’re put in it to enjoy it”. Well yes Alma, I did.