Cause Célèbre (Old Vic)

Angry thesps and snoring critics attend a gripping Rattigan revival.

It's the first night of Cause Célèbre at the Old Vic and sitting in front of me is James McAvoy, whose wife, Anne-Marie Duff, is starring. A nervous moment for a husband and thespian. The theatre is full of critics and actors. I sometimes think that the main reason for having so many drama schools is to provide an audience for serious plays. One seat away from McAvoy is Paul Taylor, theatre critic for the Independent. As the house lights faded for the second act, so did the rheumy-eyed reviewer. Gently, he fell into the arms of Morpheus, like a man sliding into warm quicksand. His head, with its distinctive Yuletide aureole of festive hair, sagged on the seat in front of him and he purred a sonorous accompaniment to the drama. It was what is known in the critics' circle as "doing a Sherry", after Sheridan Morley, most of whose long life in theatre seemed to have passed as a marvellous dream. When it was announced sadly that he'd died, someone - it might have been me - unkindly enquired how one could tell.

The snores grew in volume and Paul's neighbour shook him awake. He rose with that startled "Where the fuck am I?" expression to discover that it wasn't a nightmare, after all. When, at last, the cast came to the curtain call and McAvoy hallooed his missus, and the critics, as they do, picked up their Oddbins carrier bags and scuttled for the exit, McAvoy leaned across to share stern words.

I couldn't hear the exchange but their body language bellowed. Paul had the embarrassed, righteous fury of a man in ladies' underwear who's been caught with his trousers down, desperately trying to pull up his dignity. McAvoy was incandescent. The critic dropped his pen; the actor picked it up and, with a sarcastic, Shakespearean flourish, handed it back. This was a moment - the baton of power, the wand of career advancement or damnation, dropped by the old critic, handed back by the thrusting young actor. The Independent's man exited stage left, dejected, pursued by demons.

I only mention this at such length because London theatre critics are a sorry, somnambulant chorus and because it was a particularly Terence Rattigan-like encounter. The playwright was very good at these English moments, the high drama of small things. But then, so much seems to be a Rattigan moment just now. The 1980s seemed to be replete with the Pinteresque and so much of the 1990s was Hare-like. Who'd have thought that the centenary of this playwright would see such a critically fawning reversal in his fortunes? For a generation, Rattigan has been the object of backstage mockery, an example of what theatre wasn't and shouldn't be, the French windows that the Angry Young Men kicked in for good.

Of all Rattigan's plays, Cause Célèbre is an odd choice for revival. This was his last play, put on in 1977, when it was received with muted and mixed notices. It must have seemed insupportably clunky. Hair, the musical, was already a decade old. Entertaining Mr Sloane had had at least two revivals. This static courtroom drama, about prewar sexual niceties from a time when court cases were followed as closely and voyeur­istically as The X Factor, went beyond nostalgia. Here's a teenager complaining to his father that he hasn't taken him to a brothel to lose his virginity yet - that really tugs at the coat-tails of Monty Python.

Even Rattigan seems to have had doubts. He abandoned the play before rewriting it for radio and then reluctantly transferred it to the theatre a few months before he succumbed to leukae­mia. Its wireless origins are visible onstage.

It's a particularly static production, relying on radio lighting and a two-storey stage - never a good look. Too many scenes are too short and the melodrama of the finale would have a far greater impact if you didn't have to see the changes or, indeed, the actors. And the whole thing's half an hour too long.

But it's still an evening that grips, mainly because Duff and Niamh Cusack, playing the two complementary but contradictory lead women, are near-faultless and memorably watchable, though Duff has to perform a mad scene that is so excruciatingly unbelievable, it's like watching someone complete a three-legged race attached to a table.
Rattigan brings a number of appealing things to the stage that were lost or discarded by the agitprop, ranty theatre that occupied most of the past 40 years. He has an immaculate craft. The neatness and satisfaction of his dialogue and just getting characters on and off are old pleasures. He writes good parts for women and we are basking in a golden age of distaff actors and directors. He explores a certain type of understated, emotionally tongue-tied Englishness that was the red rag to kitchen-sink playwrights and he treats it with respect and fondness. He can make characters say very little while expressing a great deal.

There is something of the Little England Chekhov about him now that his plays have moved beyond accent to become historical. It's interesting to compare this handful of revivals, led by Flare Path at the Theatre Royal, with recent attempts to revive John Osborne, Rattigan's nemesis. Look Back in Anger is revealed as so misogynistic that it is impossible to watch with empathy today. But Rattigan still holds a kindly mirror up to the audience, which sees itself for the first time, or, at least, in a long time, as quietly heroic. It can identify without apology - so much nicer than being harangued with middle-class guilt about the state of workers.

The Independent, meanwhile, apologises that Taylor will be played by an understudy. The star was apparently on medication, like so many critics after the interval. l

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit