The Deep Blue Sea

Posted on: 23 June 2016 by Laurence Green

The Deep Blue Sea is a perfectly judged, exquisitely sad production that marks the National Theatre at its very best, writes Laurence Green.

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea

One of Terence Rattigan's finest plays, The Deep Blue Sea - a devastating portrait of a woman adrift on love's ocean, desperately afraid of loneliness and blighted by the social conventions of the time - returns to the London stage (the Lyttelton auditorium at the National) in a first rate production directed by Carrie Cracknell.

The year is 1952, the place a seedy flat in Ladbroke Grove, West London. When Hester Collyer is found by her neighbours in the aftermaths of failed suicide attempt, the story of her tempestuous affair with a former RAF pilot and the breakdown of her marriage to a High Court judge begins to emerge. Hester had ditched her life of married respectability to live in sin with Freddie, a dashing and somewhat younger on-time pilot with a burgeoning drink problem. But when Hester had found that Freddie does not and cannot love her in the way she loves him, she had tried to take her own life and we suspect another suicide attempt is imminent.

This work took Rattigan three years to complete and is in many ways the most personally fraught and anguished play he has ever written, drawing upon some of the most deeply hidden and painful events in his own life. The drama provides a powerful insight into the emotional turmoil of post-war Britain and director Carrie Cracknell makes each of the characters the embodiment of a broken Britain that had been scarred by the hardships of war. Behind the fragile veneer of post-war civility here burns a brutal sense of loss and longing.

Designer Tom Scutt has created a two-storey rooming house on stage, the walls of which are translucent, conveying a real sense of lives lived on top of one another. Behind the gauze walls the tenants move like ghosts, suggesting a surveillance society where our protagonist can never express herself freely.

What however most impresses about this production is Helen McCrory's superb performance as Hester. Rattigan himself said his prime concern was "the illogicality of passion" and this is beautifully conveyed by McCrory, the most striking thing, though, about her performance is not her weakness but her strength, her almost fearsome calm and composure. Where her lover Freddie is an insensitive self-destructive figure who nevertheless retains a faint hint of likeability, and her wealthy, estranged husband sir William a stiff, patronising figure but with a solid core of humanity, Hester is lucid, self-possessed and agonisingly self-aware. She knows that neither man is capable of satisfying her intellectually or emotionally.

Indeed Tom Burke as Freddie captures the caddish manner of a fallen idol who has retreated into emotional and professional laziness. He has the bewildered charm of a man out of his depths in post-war society. As a pilot he had a good war but is now drinking himself into oblivion.

Peter Sullivan as Lord Collyer is not just a dry old stick but a man who knows he cannot properly articulate his affections for his wife. Marion Bailey meanwhile makes the landlady a figure of instinctive worldly wisdom, observing that Hester is her favourite tenant because she like nice people but not necessary good ones.

The discovery of evening, though is Nick Fletcher who is truly magnetic as Hester's neighbour Miller, a former director who was sent to prison for what was believed to be a homosexual act and is now reduced to working as an assistant to a bookmaker.

This, then is a perfectly judged, exquisitely sad production that marks the National Theatre at its very best.

The Deep Blue Sea

Runs until 21 September 2016 at the Lyttelton auditorium at the National Theatre

Box office: 020 7452 3000The Deep Blue Sea

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