Friday, 17 June 2016

Theatre review: The Deep Blue Sea

Quite a major case of déjà vu for me tonight, as although Carrie Cracknell's production for the National is the first time I've seen Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, it was only two weeks ago that I saw Kenny Morgan, based on the true events that inspired it. And as it turns out, Mike Poulton's play had followed Rattigan's template very closely. The Deep Blue Sea opens with Hester Collyer (Helen McCrory) lying unconscious in front of her gas fire, having attempted suicide. Her neighbour Philip (Hubert Burton) smells the gas, and with the help of landlady Mrs Elton (Marion Bailey) gets into the flat and revives her. This scandal causes another one to be revealed: The man she lives with, and who everyone assumed was Hester's husband, is in fact her lover, and she's actually still married to someone else.

The play sees Rattigan stick to the Aristotelian unities, keeping the action in a single location - the flat's kitchen/living room - and within the span of 24 hours, during which it will be decided if Hester will try to kill herself again.

Fighting to keep her alive are her neighbours, including Mr Miller (Nick Fletcher,) a former doctor struck off after being sent to prison (reading between the lines it was for being gay.) There's also Hester's aloof but ultimately caring husband, the newly-appointed judge William Collyer (Peter Sullivan.) On the other hand the personal demons dragging her down are all about her lover Freddie (Tom Burke,) and his inability to love her back in the same way she loves him.

Being Rattigan it's written both movingly and with a lightness of touch, but I do wish I'd seen this first, or at the very least a lot longer after seeing Kenny Morgan: Although the two plays ultimately focus on different things, and the apparently identical characters are actually pretty different, in terms of story and structure they are virtually identical, apart from Poulton restoring both the lead's real gender and the story's real ending to his version. Having had a bad night's sleep the night before, the familiarity didn't help when my concentration threatened to lapse.

Of course there to counteract that is McCrory, whose performance is not only brittle and touching but also very detailed, making the cheap seats at the front of the Stalls a really good vantage point. There's something very real about tiny moments like Hester's attempt to eat a slice of bread and butter and not being able to muster up the energy, a moment nicely mirrored at the play's climax. For all the talk of this production ditching the reverence for Rattigan this is still a pretty straightforward telling of the story, the only real departure from naturalism being the gauze walls of Tom Scutt's set, through which we see life carrying on in the rest of the building, even as Hester's threatens to come to a close. It's a good production with a great central turn, but I do wish I'd seen it in isolation rather than paired with its almost identical twin.

The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan is booking in repertory until the 21st of September at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

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