I'm not sure there's any blue sea left any more thanks to oil spills and other rampant pollution. But since we've managed to explore the oceans with inventions that can plunge to unbelievable depths, we've unravelled some of the mysteries that icy-cold world contains. In a way, there's more lurking there than Terence Rattigan imagined when he coined this title, though he really had in mind the depths of romantic love. In fact the title comes from the adage 'between the devil and the deep blue sea', or to put it another way, to be in an impossible situation. Not a linguistic usage that is quite so popular today maybe, but gives an indication of what this play is about.
The smell of gas alarms the residents of a boarding house for professional types at the start of the play which is set in the austere 1950s of post-war London. Ladbroke Grove is the district, and the house has seen much better, and one suspects much grander days. Francis O'Connor's evocative design is appropriately angular, with wallpaper peeling from the high walls. And a semi-transparent back wall helps us see action and reaction on the staircase outside the living room where most of the drama takes place, but also suggests the devastation of the war that would have still been in evidence. It's a fine piece of work that does ample justice to the bleak and sombre times.
Hester - Lady Hester Collyer - has attempted suicide. She's survived only because there was insufficient money in the meter. She makes a speedy recovery thanks to the assistance of Mr Miller – an east european emigre - from the top flat. As the story unfolds, we learn that it's Hester's obsessive, possessive and excessive love for one Freddie Page that lies at the heart of her unhappiness, and, as she says, places her between 'the devil and the deep blue sea'.
Brave for its time, 'The Deep Blue Sea' was first performed in 1952 and was one of Rattigan's most successful plays. The basic theme focuses on the inability of two people to love each other equally, or in the same way. Apparently Rattigan had experience of this both as a recipient of obsessive love and as a exponent if you like, and Rattigan used the suicide of his former gay lover as the opening for 'The Deep Blue Sea', which shows that some writers have an unscrupulous streak when it comes to obtaining ideas for their work.
The play's success rests almost entirely with Greta Scacchi as Hester Collyer. She needs to convince us that her love for the dashingly handsome ex-RAF pilot, Freddie Page, is beyond reason, almost subconsciously induced and lacking any rational control. I never really felt that what she was portraying was very much more than infatuation, even though she produced some hysterical outbursts that were quite moving. In fact, to understand the kind of love that Rattigan was getting at, you have to look at the very last bit of action in the very last scene. Although we needed to see a faint glimmer of hope in Hester's actions, we also needed to see continued misery indicative of a long and difficult road ahead. We didn't get it.
Tim McMullan also left me with some uncertainty as the, at least initially, dry and dour Mr Miller. McMullan's performance is humorous and entertaining – getting most of the laughs of the evening - but it borders on caricature. So, when he advises Hester about the means for rebuilding her life and what life is actually about, we're not quite so sure that his views are based on the wisdom gained from experience, or those of someone with real understanding and perception of the human condition.
Revivals are not always successful, often because they're no longer relevant. But I don't think that is the case here. First, it's a play with historical context – the stuffiness of the times coupled with the austerity of life following the devastating World War. Those aspects alone give it merit, but the basic idea of loving someone 'too much' or in a way that's self-destructive, is both fascinating and relevant for all of us, even if we've never experienced it. Mixed-in with this central theme are other notable concerns of the time: 'the sordid business of suicide' and the constant threat of blackmail faced by homosexuals, for example.
Absorbing though it is to watch, this version of 'The Deep Blue Sea' doesn't take us to those eerie and mysterious depths of love that I think Rattigan's play really had in mind.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, “Disappointingly uneven.” CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “This is a truly great evening in the West End.” NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Even a production as limp as Edward Hall’s cannot disguise the fact that 56 years after its premiere this historic play still strikes notes of radical daring in our own age of supposed sexual equality." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, “Fine revival.”