And so I’ve reached a bit of a milestone – 100 days of consecutive online viewing and reviewing during lockdown. I started on April 1st and intended it to be just a 30 day thing (#30plays30days) but, somehow, it just keeps rolling and I’ve now amassed reviews of 120 different productions (click here for full list). As the National Theatre At Home series has absolutely been a constant feature throughout, it seems appropriate that their latest and, sadly, their penultimate offering should be the focus of my centennial review. The Deep Blue Sea first produced in 1952 is generally considered Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece and contains one of THE great roles for a female performer. You may have noticed the words “generally considered”; I really can’t decide. I’ve seen the play two or three times before (though admittedly never actually onstage) and have always found myself thinking modern Greek tragedy or domestic potboiler? I hoped that this version might help to settle the matter.
Carrie Cracknell’s production from 2016 is surprisingly conventional in approach but then why tinker with something that has a proven track record in terms of structure, characterisation and setting? The play opens with a botched suicide attempt as tortured soul Hester Collyer tries to end what she regards as an increasingly miserable existence. Besotted by a younger man, Freddie, she has left her husband – a pillar of the community – and moved into a seedy flat in West London with her lover. It is the sort of place where the gas is operated by coins placed in a meter; ironically, this is what saves Hester from committing what was, at the time, regarded as a crime. The residents of the other flats come to her rescue, amongst them Mr Miller, another troubled soul but who has learned to cope with life rather better. The rest of the play examines Hester’s past, her present situation and looks forward into a possible future.
As Hester, Helen McCrory is on fine form painting a strong picture of a woman in torment that she has broken with convention, hurt her husband deeply but most of all that she cannot get Freddie to love her with the intensity and passion with which she loves him. The notion of an older woman throwing up everything for a younger lover would have seemed more shocking in 1952 and McCrory convincingly portrays a woman socially, morally and personally on the edge of a very strong ocean that threatens to engulf her and drag her under. Her choice is between this and the “devil” of respectability when William, her husband, confesses that he still loves her and offers her a way back. McCrory’s decisive moment is totally convincing; there is, in effect no right or wrong choice – only invidious options.
Tom Burke makes for a convincing Freddie, once a bit of a war hero but now rather aimlessly adrift in a new world that has moved on. Perhaps rather flattered by Hester’s attentions, he too now faces a choice of remaining with the devil of his current situation or plunging into his own deep blue sea. His decisive moment is reached offstage which means it has less impact but in his final appearance Burke show us how torn Freddie is despite his outward bravado. William is often played as a rather desiccated individual who is trying to get Hester back for the sake of appearances rather than any actual feelings he may have but in this version we are in no doubt that the urbane charmer is still in love with his wife. Peter Sullivan’s performance is subtle and nuanced, and we believe right up until the final moments that he just may win Hester back (for some reason the character/actor has not been included on the downloadable programme). Nick Fletcher as the enigmatic Mr Miller acts as the voice of conscience and reason – it is another subtle and well-judged performance.
I have always found the other characters rather cliched particularly the “lord love us” landlady Mrs Elton. Marion Bailey and the rest of the cast do what they can with the dialogue, but they remain rather insubstantial and unrealised figures. Cracknell’s directorial decision here is to make them literally shadows in the background as we see their comings and goings during scene changes along with a number of other extras who really add nothing more than a sense of a larger world outside. I did not find Tom Schutt’s set convincing. The vast expanse of the Lyttleton stage is a difficult one to fill and the decision to use its width meant that the dingy poky flat which we should have seen had the square footage (if not the fixtures and fittings) of an upmarket loft apartment. I was also a little phased by the cinematic sound design of Peter Rice. Rattigan’s dialogue is quite powerful enough as it stands without the need to punctuate moments with Stuart Earl’s music. However, the haunting inclusion of “I Only Have Eyes For You” as a recurrent theme created mood and post war atmosphere.
There’s a lot about making judgements in the play – Hester’s estranged husband is a High Court judge – and passing sentence on other’s lives. I’m acutely aware that reviewing a production is to come to a judgement of one’s own and pass sentence but in the case of The Deep Blue Sea I find myself firmly sitting on the fence. Good performances? Mostly. Fine production? Mainly. Great play? The jury’s still out.
Production photos by Richard Hubert Smith
The Deep Blue Sea is available from the National Theatre At Home until July 16th. Click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)