FringeReview UK 2017
The New Venture Theatre Upstairs hosts its first Rattigan – something of an NVT institution – in Pat Boxall’s revival of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. It’s a prosc-arch play and the angled design by Simon Glazier, based on Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s 1952 original, evokes shabby naturalism. Phil Palmer’s subdued lighting counterpoints Tim Metcalfe’s music, sympathetically non-period. Till March 25th.
Pat Boxall’s revival of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea follows other Rattigans at the New Venture Theatre. It’s a prosc-arch play and the angled design by Simon Glazier, based on Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s 1952 original, evokes shabby naturalism – authentic props ooze dreary aplomb. Under Phil Palmer’s subdued lighting you take a while to notice the rug on the floor has a body under it. Tim Metcalfe’s sound and music is sympathetically non-period, though just in one place unnecessary.
It opens with door-bangings, discovery by married neighbours the Welches. Matthew Davies and Isabella Somerville McCarthy fluster with charcoal comedy over Hester Collyer’s attempted suicide. McCarthy’s Ann is told it isn’t fit for her to see. Emmie Spencer’s Hester lies sprawled by the gas fire. Mrs Elton the kindly landlady finally reveals former fighter and test pilot Freddie Page who lives with Hester isn’t her husband; call for Sir William Collyer. It impresses these civil servants as Hester becomes Lady Collyer – something they can’t stop calling her. As they all misname struck-off Viennese doctor upstairs, Mr Miller. Characters rapidly swirl in threes and eventually duets as various tragedies play out.
Hester’s left her affectionate but emotionally frozen high court judge of a husband Sir William (Mark Lester, adamantine, with an upthrust chin poked out of a morning suit) for a superficially exciting, equally frozen ex-ace and test-pilot. Freddie Page whose ‘life stopped in 1940’ has lost his nerve even there, drinks, suffered a crash in Ottawa. Rattigan a rear gunner, knew the type. Freddie can’t answer Hester’s newly-awoken sexual urgency, made palpable in Spencer’s overarching performance. ‘Minus times minus is still minus’ she sadly smiles at her uncomprehending husband.
Lester’s portrayal conjures the well-meaning priggishness of Collyer to the collar. He doesn’t quite unbend to vulnerability or variety in tone when the ex-couple share reminiscence. Few portraying Collyer manage it. But in flashes Lester gives off Collyer’s pain.
Spencer plumbs Hester’s erotic despair with a county chameleon set: sang-froid coping, amused dignity, bursts of tear-stained passion, depending on who’s addressed. She avoids overtly sexualising Hester: you see it in a look, or in the rending screams to Freddie at the end of the second act (when the music should have slept: Spencer emphatically doesn’t need it). With Elton she’s affectionate despite Elton’s killer line: ‘you’re my favourite… why is it we prefer the nice, and not the good?’ ‘Between the devil… the deep blue sea is so inviting’ Hester confides. Diane Robinson’s Mrs Elton is so vivid you’ve met her. Her too-brief scenes with Spencer’s Hester are treasurable.
There’s darker comedy too as Neil Drew’s Freddie breezes in unaware, then finds the would-be suicide note; everything changes. Hester’s reactions to Freddie, off-hand sulky, suddenly passionate, then resignedly casual, exhibit desperate mercurial strategies. Hester’s intelligence is more acute than anyone save Miller, and, but for him, it condemns her. Spencer nuances Hester’s volatilities, where she staggers out of meltdown into a battered new shape. Spencer’s mobile face, often turned from Drew’s, says everything about zero minus zero.
This isn’t just Hester’s tragedy. ‘We’re death to each other Hess’ Freddie announces in a rare flash of insight. In fact roles are reversed, not so much a transference of grace as catching a death. He accepts a job he’s no longer fit for: test pilot in Rio. Unable to answer Hester’s erotic passion, feeling wretched for the only person he cares for but can never love, Freddie opts for a death sentence. That isn’t underlined in Drew’s appropriately flustered, brisk performance. We’d not guess unless we knew. Drew’s superb at conveying Freddie’s edgy absorption, shows him no fool, but eternally callow, attracting several women as an homme fatale, his friend Jackie shrewdly notes. Drew’s wiriness, all caged pacing, conveys a man still young rather than the shabby amplitude of a burned-out pilot in his early thirties, whose tragedy answers Hester’s. But the slice of Freddie he does invoke is thrillingly authentic.
The Collyers’ encounters elicit greater, less visceral depth, glittering with their dead world; Spencer triumphs. Lester’s all bemused tolerance. The first elicits Hester’s admission that Freddie doesn’t love her, but gives ‘himself’ sexually ‘from time to time’ a phrase tellingly used of women till then, and subversive in Rattigan’s inversion. Hester’s been able to accept that occasional gift till now.
Sir William’s out of his depth, shown comically reacting to the bad claret Hester warns him about, then crucially in kissing her to implore her return: she responds by stopping herself do more than peck him gently. This Sir William would expect no more, doesn’t realise the significance.
Jeremy Crow with Mr Miller’s stunning speech as he detects her second attempt at suicide, is passionate with the dead Miller left behind, perhaps too a sexuality that led to his jail term. Crow’s towering over this Hester gradates to tenderness, as he briefly holds her. This is one of theatre’s great scenes, the finest – certainly deepest – Rattigan ever wrote. Spencer reacts wonderfully, her tear-stained face heliotropic in the small quiet blaze of Crow’s recognition of her, the first ever to do so. Miller encourages her gift as a painter with insight into her fledgling talent at seventeen and how it might re-ignite. All her husband can do is collect and offer to pay. Miller does indeed give like Freddie just a little of himself to Hester. You realize it’s a cruel irony these two ‘new friends’ as Miller puts it, aren’t the lovers.
There’s good work from Ben Pritchard’s more avuncular Jackie, clearly less of a pilot and neatly slower-witted here, out of his depth as Freddie tells him. He’s nevertheless emotionally more intelligent and sees Hester’s plight sympathetically in Freddie’s selfish light.
Davies makes his very creditable debut as Philip Welch, inhabiting a preachy young home office civil servant who equates his own infatuation the previous year with Hester’s tragedy. Spencer rises superbly to humour and dismiss him. Davies is consummate bafflement. Somerville McCarthy, so memorable in several roles recently, makes what she can of needy, hidebound Ann, the kind Sir William should have married. Somerville McCarthy’s clipped nervousness opens and closes off her small tap of sympathy. Blink and you’d miss it.
Boxall paces this production with the pause and sudden rush Rattigan often elicits. There’s no hurry in the last act, that miraculous unfolding of Hester’s bleak version of ‘I can’t go on; I’ll go on.’ Helen McCrory’s incandescent Hester at the National in 2016 met with little answering power from her colleagues; she carried the production. Spencer’s subtle anguish carries the arc of this one superbly; with the twist of a half-smile she makes Hester vulnerable, indeed loveable, less heroine, more toweringly human. If anything, it recalls Amanda Root’s 2011 Chichester performance but these comparisons are made only to show what company Spencer can keep, making the role her own. Happily her consummate Hester is answered here: in the scale of production, in Crow’s empathic, passionate plea for life and a host of supporting foils from cast members.