‘Cause Célèbre’ at The British Players by Amanda Gunther


A headlining murder case that electrified London in 1935 – a true murder story with all the spicy elements: a sexually frustrated middle-aged married woman, her young hot-blooded angry lover, the doddering old impotent husband, the bloody mallet, the free-flowing booze and brown cocaine; it’s all there. Terence Rattigan’s well made dramatization of middle class life is brought to life through The British Players’ production of Cause Célèbre. Directed by Adriana Hardy, this presentation of Rattigan’s work examines the way everyone’s lives are somehow connected even if not directly, while exploring the preconceived notions of guilt and innocence.

Montagu (Ronnie Hardcastle) O'Connor (David Segal) and Alma (Karn Henderson-Ford). Photo courtesy of The British Players.

The multi-tiered set allows for easy transference from one scene to the next, creating several niches for new locations on the stage. Scenic Designer J. Andrew Simmons manages to incorporate two separate living rooms, two separate bedrooms, a holding cell, a waiting room, a room for inquisition, and a courtroom on one stage with the aid of Lighting Designer Michael Sinsabaugh. Every time a new scene begins Sinsabaugh’s lighting pattern eases the transition, darkening the portion of the stage that had just been played on and brightening the new location as the actors arrived. In a play that moves so very quickly not only from scene to scene but in time and space back and forth through months and years, this sort of flawless lighting design is crucial to help distinguish what is happening on stage.

The narration provided before the show starts, after intermission and then in-between acts was slightly off-putting. While it attempted to serve as a guide to keep the audience informed as to what’s about to happen, this seemed superfluous and redundant once the play was underway. Narration was provided by a quartet of players, alternating at different performances. But everything said during this narration was essentially then acted out during the scenes. The shifts between scenes as well as time and space were quick but weree not so radical that the audience could not easily follow them without this narration. It just felt distracting and slightly impeding to the otherwise well-paced production.

Stella (Kathryn Browning) and Edith (Roberta Chaves). Photo courtesy of The British Players.

The characters are rather ordinary – those you would expect in everyday life but these actors provided a vivacious quality to keep the audiences interest by blowing fulfilling breaths of liveliness into their portrayals. We find the youthful son Tony Davenport (Josh Bartosch) to be captivated by the news printings of the murder. Bartosch’s eager expressive voice lends itself to that borderline between adolescence and adulthood, the conflicts with his mother Edith (Roberta Chaves) giving him ample stimulation to really project that dichotomy of anxious teenager and grounded young adult. Edith and her sister Stella (Kathryn Browning) are much like clucking hens, especially when discussing Tony. Chaves and Browning allow their gossipy banter to elevate a normal conversation to a more in depth discussion creating intrigue for the audience in their words.

The character that grew the most, or at the very least changed frequently is the main focus of the show – Alma Rattenbury (Karn Henderson-Ford). When we first encounter her she is rather sultry, a wayward woman trying to be self contained, presenting herself with subtle hints to her darker desires when George (Jimmy Hennigan) first appears in her apartment. Ford grows into this aloof and highly self-important character as she is arraigned in the holding cell, musing idly over being ill dressed rather than focusing on the fact she’s being accused. She embodies drunken shock with zest and a vibrant physical approach, slurring her speech ever so slightly and letting her body sway naturally as she stumbled across the room. And when the remorse and gravity of her actions sets in there are no lingering traces of Ford’s previous portrayals of the character as if she’s changed completely, leaving us with a harrowingly hollow shell of the former Alma Rattenbury, reduced to a frightened and humbled woman as she takes the stand in court.

Her interactions with the other characters help to define her performance, each exchanged bristle of words with her husband Francis (Dave Bradley) making her seem discontent in the marriage. Her taciturn answers serve as great catalysts for her legal counsel, O’Connor (David Segal) and Caswell (Bob Chaves). These two actors share a moment of rapid banter in the holding chambers, each nit-picking at the other’s approach to the case, adding an odd moment of levity to the otherwise serious proceedings.

(lower left- Francis Rattenbury (Dave Bradley) center- George (Jimmy Hennigan) and Alma (Karn Henderson-Ford). Photo courtesy of The British Players.

Ford’s deliberate shift in character is so strong that it even transfers to the other characters, in particular Edith who starts the play having a grounded opinion and by the end shifted into something drastically opposite. Chaves makes a stoic stance when addressed by the court, her reasons for wishing to be dismissed from the jury indicated clearly in her steely gaze and hard-poised features.

Cause Célèbre is a quaint afternoon British drama that has some moments of excitement that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Be sure to weigh in your vote for the jury during the intermission at The British Players’ Cause Célèbre.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Cause Célèbre plays through April 1, 2012 at The British Players at Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or online.

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