A wonderful production of a great play
Terence Rattigan's 1950s play The Deep Blue Sea is, literally, the play that changed my life: I saw it aged 14 and became hooked on theatre as a result. I'm not quite sure how or why the play - which deals eloquently with the pain of unrequited love and co-dependency - resonated so powerfully on someone who had not yet had the life experience to draw on to know how deeply truthful it was, as I would find out for myself in the years to come. But the writing is so personal and so full of reservoirs of wrenching feeling and the survival instinct that keeps us alive in the face of the worst kind of pain, that I fell in love not only with this play but the theatre itself. It's still a deeply transformative play for me today: I have seen numerous productions in the years since, and it continues to strike deep chords of emotion in me. Watching the National's searing, shattering new production, I cried yet again.
But I weep now as much for the devastation that Hester feels when the former RAF pilot she has left her judge husband for - exchanging a safe but dull married life of seven years - walks out of her after just ten months, as for the hope and determination of self-discovery she makes to go forward. There's such deep compassion and understanding of the human condition here that it burrows into your heart.
I have long yearned to see Helen McCrory, one of our most brittle yet subtle actresses, play Hester: she has exactly the air of contained feeling, like a wave that is on the verge of breaking, that seems perfect. And so it proves at the National, where she returns after playing the title role in Medea - another woman in deep personal crisis - and is reunited now with the same director Carrie Cracknell to explore its devastating range.
Cracknell, who also specialises in plays about women taking themselves to extremes (she also directed the wonderful Young Vic production of A Doll's House that transferred to the West End), adds one or two sound effect embellishments, but otherwise plays it extremely straight, even straight-laced. It is wisely set in pitch-perfect period by designer Tom Scutt.
But the play itself ripples with darker undercurrents, as the emotional dam on this life bursts. The pain and lack of self-esteem in relationships based on co-dependency - in which Hester will do anything to hold onto a man who forgets her birthday and is casually and brutally dismissive of her is shatteringly shown. She lives it. Tom Burke, as the object of her seemingly misplaced affection, and Peter Sullivan as her deserted husband, are a wonderful study in contrasts; but for once you can see why she was attracted to both men, not just the newcomer.
Around them there are no less superb character studies, including Marion Bailey as her kindly landlady, Hubert Burton and Yolanda Kettle as her young neighbours and Nick Fletcher as the doctor who lives upstairs.
It's a wonderful production of a great play.
What the popular press had to say...
"On the play’s release in 1952, the Observer’s critic showed a warped sense of judgment when he declared that all Hester needed was a good slap. At the end of this open-hearted production, I wanted to give her (and indeed all of the cast) a reassuring hug."
Ben Lawrence for The Telegraph
"Because the production is so good, I resented even more Peter Rice’s sound design, which, with its thundery rumbles and earth-shaking vibrations, suggested that this London rooming house was not so much occupied by Freddie Page as about to be menaced by Freddy from A Nightmare on Elm Street."
Mark Lawson for The Guardian
"Helen McCrory is achingly good in this sombre, tense revival of one of Terence Rattigan’s finest plays... McCrory delivers one of the performances of the year. Rigorous and poised, she makes Hester fragile and big-hearted, wry and wise but in the end a vortex of irrepressible desire."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Rattigan’s portrait of a self-destructive sexual yearning that cannot be properly realised has resonances with his own secluded, secret sexual life. But here it also has an indisputable power of its own in this mesmerising story of human failing and McCrory provides a revelatory performance marred only by the occasional slip when first night jitters caused the cast to run over each other's lines a couple of times."
Ben Dowell for Radio Times