Like all Rattigan's plays, it is really about the inherent British incapacity for dealing with passion, with the playwright this time quite ambitiously attempting to look at it from multiple angles.
Thea Sharrock's new production is in many ways superior to the 1977 original, though it is still only partly successful. Where it is good, it is very good, and where it doesn't succeed you will just sense something missing - something, I suspect, that the author himself didn't provide.
While telling the story of the murder and the court case that followed, Rattigan invents the parallel second drama of a member of the jury, an unhappily married sex-hating woman with a son the age of the co-defendant whose first explorations of his sexuality offend and frighten her.
She naturally has an absolute hatred for the adulteress and a fear of the moral and sexual chaos she seems to represent, and her story is one of facing and wrestling with that prejudice and fear.
(There is, in a sense, a third plot line in the courtroom drama, with the opposing barristers amiably playing the game of scoring points and showing off, and for much of the second act we are diverted from the drama by this polished light entertainment.)
Anne-Marie Duff takes the very brave step of introducing the defendant-to-be as a flighty, flirtatious airhead who enters the affair with the young handyman without any thought of consequences or anything else beyond the immediate gratification.
We understand, then, how after the murder she is broken as much by the forced realisation that this is real life and not a game as by anything else, and the risk the actress took of losing our sympathy at the start pays off as she wins it all back.
What Duff doesn't show us is what went on in between.
One of Rattigan's main points, stated repeatedly in the play, is that a May-December affair is not a matter of the elder debauching the innocent, but of the younger having the power of desirability over the elder. But we never really see it.
Part of that, as I suggested, is the playwright's fault, as he shows us only one brief scene of the lovers together, but that means that he leaves it to the actress to fill in the gap, and while Duff gives us a woman sobered and even broken by her experience, she doesn't show us the lover in thrall to her passion or need.
As the juror, Niamh Cusack is given the same challenge, as the author clearly delineates where she is at the beginning and the end but doesn't spell out the journey for her.
But Cusack is more successful in connecting the dots, giving the woman a strength of character even in the depth of her repression and prejudice that makes believable her capacity to see herself and cope with what she discovers.
Richard Clifford and Nicholas Jones as, respectively, prosecutor and defence barrister, make the most of their big scene, and Lucy Robinson has strong moments as a friend of the juror who never transcends her prejudices.
Thea Sharrock's staging is fluid - the play was originally conceived for radio, and jumps around a lot - though it has one odd feature. Though there are token sets, for most of the action she lines her actors up across the front of the stage facing forward and addressing their lines to us.
At worst, this has the feel of the kind of schools production in which the kids are encouraged to shout at the back wall of the auditorium; at best, it gives the play a cool, almost Brechtian distance that frustrates our desire to get emotionally closer to the characters.
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- Cause Célèbre - Old Vic 2011