Friday, 10 June 2016

'The Deep Blue Sea' at the National Theatre

'The Deep Blue Sea' is a play by Terence Rattigan from 1952 that doesn't seem to be revived very often but it may be better known as the 1955 film with Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More or the 2011 film with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. I saw the 1955 film a few years ago in a cleaned up print at the British Film Institute but haven't seen the 2011 version. Neither had I seen the stage play until this week at the National Theatre.

The play takes place over one day in the life of Hester Collyer, a supposedly middle class lady married to Freddie Page and is referred to as 'Mrs Page'. It's the early '50s (the timing is nicely signalled by reference to rationing) and is set in a down at heels boarding house at which the Pages rent the first floor flat. The place is dowdy and dismal and a far cry from what Hester is used to. It open with the landlady and a neighbour forcing open Hester's door because there's a smell of gas, rushing in and finding her on the floor beside the gas fire, apparently a case of suicide. Hester has failed at her suicide because she forgot to fill up the gas metre. And from there the story unfolds.

We learn that Hester is actually married to Judge Collyer, a famous High Court Judge but she's run away with Freddie Page whom they met at a golfing weekend outside London. Freddie was a dashing Spitfire pilot during the war and who made a living as a test pilot until he lost his nerve and turned to drink. Hester was perfectly happy in her loveless marriage - it's what women of her class do, after all - until she met Freddie and theirs is a passionate physical relationship rather than the rather staid round of dinner parties she's used to.

Hester is scared that Freddie is getting bored with her and, when he forgets her birthday, that's when she tries to commit suicide. That in itself reeks of a relationship gone wrong and, later that day, Freddie realises it too, that they're not right for one another and will kill each other eventually so he must leave. It's painful but has to be done and is, quite possibly, the most grown-up thing he's ever done in his life. This prompts Hester to go for suicide again but is interrupted by the blacklisted doctor who lives upstairs who somehow gives her hope by buying one of her early paintings and, when he leaves. allows Hester to pull herself together and look to a more positive future that she must make for herself.

The play takes you on quite an emotional journey, but it's restrained emotion, controlled with a stiff upper lip, very upper middle class and very British. I've seen a few Rattigan plays in the last few years - 'French Without Tears', 'Flare Path', 'The Winslow Boy' - and that's a characteristic they all share. He's a skilled story-teller and that shines through, despite the poshness of his work.

The set was truly depressing, with the big Lyttelton stage dressed as Hester's depressing flat, with sparse furniture, drab furnishings and see-through walls so you can just about make out other people moving in the other flats from time to time which made the very open stage quite claustrophobic. The atmospheric lighting added to that feeling as the play moves through the day. It was all quite bleak.

Helen McCrory plays Hester in what must be an exhausting role since she's on-stage the whole time. She was really quite excellent as the repressed housewife who's found her escape from a humdrum little life into a more exciting world only to have it crumble around her. She made me believe in Hester and want the best for her - and that's good acting. I saw Helen in 'Medea' as the witch-queen and in 'The Last of the Haussmanns' a few years ago, so she can easily go from dramatic and tragic to comedy and this role let her do a bit of both with everything in between.

I was less convinced by Tom Burke as Freddie who came across as boring and a drunk. Yes, that's partly the role but it's also how you play it. Freddie was exciting and a war hero before the booze so where's that aspect to him? Where's the charisma that Kenneth More captured so effortlessly in the film that attracted Hester in the first place. Missing, is where it is. On the other hand, I did like Nick Fletcher as the former doctor with a past who seems to be the voice of reason whenever he appears on stage and who ends up by giving Hester some hope for a future of her own. His performance was underplayed and touching.

It's a play that seems to make the small things big and belittle the big things. It's about love and lust, post-war depression, suicide and the future, but there are also some laughs in the production - it's not all worthy and depressing. It is definitely worth seeing, especially for Helen McCrory's performance and the growth of her character.

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