The only reason I can think of why the National is staging Terence Rattigan’s much revived 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea is to give the wonderful Helen McCrory a crack at one of the great post-World War II women’s roles in British theatre.
Following in the variegated footsteps of, among others, Peggy Ashcroft, Margaret Sullavan, Penelope Keith, Isabel Dean, Harriet Walter, Blyth Danner, Greta Scacchi, Maxine Peake, Amanda Root Rachel Weisz, Virginia McKenna and, most memorably, Penelope Wilton, she plays a married woman cohabiting with another man whose inability to return the love she so desperately feels for him results in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Her name is Hester Collyer, and she lives in an insalubrious flat in Ladbroke Grove. Early one morning, neighbours discover her huddled body next to an unlit gas fire that fortunately had run out of meter money before any real damage could be done.
Though still married to William Collyer (Peter Sullivan), a High Court judge, Hester walked out on him for Freddie Page (Tom Burke), a test pilot who, since the end of the war, has lost his conviction to fly and is living a dissolute, aimless, alcohol-fuelled life largely spent on the golf course.
The botched suicide and the effect it has on Hester’s husband (who still loves her) and on Freddie (who does not) is the fulcrum on which this famous warhorse pivots, and it allows Rattigan ample scope to indulge his brilliant flair for character development as the complexity of the situation takes hold.
Rattigan’s skill shines, too, in fleshing out the minor characters such as Mrs. Elton (Marion Bailey), the busybody landlady who makes a distinction between her tenants being either “nice” or “good,” the neighbours Ann and Philip Welch (Yolanda Kettle and Hubert Burton), who are first to discover Hester’s suicide attempt, and, most interesting of all, Mr. Miller (Nick Fletcher), a disbarred doctor who not only facilitates Hester’s physical recovery but gives her spiritual hope as well when Freddie devastatingly abandons her.
It is interesting that in a play that leaves nothing at all to the imagination and in which everything is explained and scrupulously delineated, Miller’s character remains ambiguous. All we actually learn about him is that he was arrested for an unknown offence, is no longer allowed to practice medicine and works as a bookmaker’s assistant. Rattigan scholars believe that Miller was, in all probability, homosexual – a prison offence in 1952. It would also explain the growing kinship he and Hester – both victims of the sexual mores of the early 50s – share.
For all this revival’s attention to detail, and despite a really gutsy, emotionally invested, heartrending and anxiety-driven central performance from McCrory. I was far less moved by Carrie Cracknell’s production than I have been by many others I’ve seen. The long first act needed more pace, and, of the supporting performances, only Burke as Freddie, an average bloke emotionally out of his depth, and Fletcher as the enigmatic Miller made any impact.
Tom Scutt’s sprawling set depicts not only Hester and Freddie’s living quarters but the entire apartment block as well. A three- or four-storey staircase is unnecessarily shown behind a gauze scrim conveying an almost ghostly presence to the other tenants as they silently make their way up and down the stairs. Stuart Earl’s music, with its mood-enhancing score, is at times percussive while at other times a barely audible, insinuating hum – effects not called for in Rattigan’s beautifully modulated text. Even Guy Hoare’s lighting is self-consciously dark and ultra moody.
What this revival will ultimately be remembered for is Helen McCrory’s draining, emotionally raw Hester. Caviar for the general.