Anne-Marie Duff on Rattigan revival

Anne-Marie Duff (photo: Jay Brooks) Cause Celebre is based on the true story of Alma Rattenbury, who was put on trial for murder in 1935

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In her first stage role since Saint Joan at the National in 2007, Anne-Marie Duff takes the lead role in Terence Rattigan's final play, Cause Celebre.

"We're lucky, us girls," says Anne-Marie Duff, when we meet in her dressing room at the Old Vic during previews week. "Rattigan tends to use women in a brilliant way."

Celebrations for Rattigan's centenary year have included several major revivals, including The Deep Blue Sea at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. A previously unseen Rattigan play, Less Than Kind, was also staged in January.

Start Quote

You're getting a real bite of the Rattigan apple.”

End Quote Anne-Marie Duff

"Sometimes when there's a writer in vogue, you'll get four productions of, say, The Glass Menagerie around the country," says Duff. "That's a shame, because it dilutes the effect, but this way you're getting a real bite of the Rattigan apple."

In Cause Celebre - as in Saint Joan - Duff plays a woman on trial.

In this case it is the real-life character Alma Rattenbury, who was in the dock in 1935 with her 18-year-old lover for violently killing her husband. Alma's fate is in the hands of a sexually-repressed jury forewoman, Edith Davenport, played by Niamh Cusack.

Rattigan attended the West End premiere of his play in July 1977 in poor health. He died four months later at his home in Bermuda.

Cause Celebre started life as a radio play two years earlier. "I suppose that's what makes it feel on a first reading like a screenplay," says Duff.

"A lot of the language is more explicit than in his other work, especially the way the boys talk about sex. What happens to Edith's son Tony is discussed in a way which wouldn't have happened in The Deep Blue Sea."

'Middle aged nympho'

Does he write well for women?

"He does. You're not just a wife, a mother, a wrong 'un. They are fully fleshed-out characters. I think he likes women, I think he understood us in an innate way. I'm not sure that he would have said he did."

Anne-Marie Duff (photo: Manuel Harlan) Cause Celebre is Anne-Marie Duff's first stage role since 2007's Saint Joan

I point out that Alma Rattenbury is described at one point in the play as "a middle-aged nympho dipso".

"She's an extraordinary woman," chuckles Duff, "she has a lot of fire in her belly and she gets burnt. She's talked about all the time. It's interesting when you're playing a character who's always on stage even when you're not."

Cause Celebre is directed by Thea Sharrock, whose production of Rattigan's After The Dance at the National last year won four Olivier Awards earlier this month.

"She's a phenomenally relaxed, brilliant director," says Duff, who is working with Sharrock for the first time.

Duff was sent the Cause Celebre script while she was taking time out after having a baby last year (with her husband, actor James McAvoy).

"Thea was already on board. I hadn't worked for a while, and it was like nothing I've ever been asked to do before, and that's a priority for me."

Among Duff's best-known TV roles are Fiona in Channel 4's Shameless (2005) as well as her lead role in Elizabeth -The Virgin Queen (2007). Film credits include The Last Station and Nowhere Boy.

But Duff has no doubt about the important influence of Shameless on her career path.

"It was the first time I'd been in anything that was a commercial success. I'd worked very happily on projects up until then, but in terms of commercial profile, it changed things.

"Ironically, all the classical theatre work I did didn't get me Virgin Queen. Shameless did."

Cause Celebre by Terence Rattigan opens at The Old Vic on Tuesday 29 March, and runs until 11 June.

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