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Cause Celebre review at Old Vic London

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The merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail, immortalised in the musical Chicago, use their crimes to turn themselves into celebrities in Kander and Ebb’s Broadway musicalisation of our ongoing fascination with the fine line between fame and notoriety.

The original Broadway production of that show opened in June 1975. No doubt purely by coincidence, Terence Rattigan’s radio play Cause Celebre received its first broadcast four months later on Radio 4. Rattigan’s play was based on the real-life story of a notorious 1935 trial, in which Alma Rattenbury and her lover, 20 years her junior, stood accused of murdering 68-year-old Bournemouth architect Francis Rattenbury.

The play was adapted for the stage two years later, with the help of its original director Robin Midgley, and became Rattigan’s final theatrical work. Having marked out a long career as a playwright in precisely articulating suppressed feelings, he unusually saw through the consequences of them coming raging to the surface in this disquieting story. He contrasted the home life that gave rise to those events with a fictionalised imagining of the trial jury forewoman’s own faltering marriage.

It’s a gritty, gripping story, a million miles from the glitz and glamour of Chicago (though Alma Rattenbury was, intriguingly, a published songwriter), and Thea Sharrock’s superb, suggestive production gives the play – part courtroom drama, part thriller – a punchy dynamism that keeps its different worlds fluidly in play.

Anne-Marie Duff, last on the London stage as Saint Joan in her award-winning performance at the National, once again brings an electrifying mixture of vulnerability and toughness to another woman on trial. She is beautifully complemented by Niamh Cusack as the no less wounded, wondering jury woman.

Production Information

Old Vic, London, March 17-June 11

Terence Rattigan
Thea Sharrock
Old Vic Theatre Company
Cast includes
Anne-Marie Duff, Niamh Cusack, Nicholas Jones, Richard Clifford, Lucy Robinson, Jenny Galloway
Running time
2hrs 40mins

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