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FringeReview UK 2016

The Deep Blue Sea

National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttleton


Low Down

Directed by Carrie Cracknel Helen McCrory leads a cast including Nick Fletcher, Peter Sullivan and Tom Burke in this revival of Rattigan’s masterpiece. Aquatic set designed by Tom Scutt.


Helen McCrory leads a cast directed by Carrie Cracknel and aquarium-seeming set designed by Tom Scutt in this revival of Rattigan’s masterpiece.

It’s been Rattigan’s month. Chichester Festival revived his 1960 Ross days before this one at the Lyttleton, and at the Arcola Mike Poulton’s Kenny Morgan cannily mapped the original of Rattigan’s inspiration onto the plot of The Deep Blue Sea. Now behold the sea itself.

It’s there in a stunning design by Tom Scutt, a vast aquarium of a boarding house: two floors tenebrous in teals, aquamarines and greys, almost dwarfing the cast. Internals and floors are momentarily lit then screened off. It’s almost an indulgence but it works.

It opens with door-bangings, discovery by neighbours Hubert Burton and Yolanda Kettle of Hester Collyer’s attempted suicide: she lies sprawled by the gas fire. Marion Bailey’s Mrs Elton the kindly landlady finally reveals former fighter and test pilot Freddie Page who lives with Hester isn’t her husband, who’s the one they can call for. As they do struck-off Viennese doctor struck-off Mr Miller; these 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 (Peter Sullivan, rather adamantine) for a superficially exciting but equally frozen ex-ace and test pilot Freddie Page who’s lost his judgment even there, and whose ‘life stopped in 1940’. Rattigan a rear gunner, knew what he was about depicting the type. Freddie can’t answer Hester’s newly-awoken sexual urgency, made palpable in Helen McCrory’s overwhelming performance.

McCrory plumbs the erotic despair of Hester’s abandoned woman with chameleon precision: sang-froid coping, amused dignity, sudden sexual passion, depending on who she’s addressing. 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?’ There’s darker comedy too as Tom Burke’s Freddie breezes in wholly unaware of the drama, then finds the would-be suicide note; everything changes. Hester’s reactions to Freddie, off-hand sulky, suddenly intensely sexual, then resignedly casual, exhibit her desperate mercurial strategies: a terraced reading of Hester’s acutely intelligent volatile empathies staggering out of meltdown into a battered new shape.

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. 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 wasn’t underlined in Burke’s appropriately blustery, naïve but never devastated performance. We’d not guess unless we knew. McCrory does her work, all horror; it’s not truly answered.

The other two encounters elicit far greater if less exciting depth; even here McCrory triumphs. Sullivan’s all bemused tolerance over several meetings. The first elicits Hester’s admission that Freddie doesn’t love her, but gives ‘himself’ sexually ‘from time to time’; she’s been able to accept that till now. This after a catch-up, revealing Hester’s urbanity, what she left.

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 erotic reflex as if kissing Freddie, which we’ve seen. Sullivan recoils in scarcely controlled repugnance and disbelief. This isn’t the woman he married: she’s suddenly alien to him. Having pleaded for Hester’s return Sullivan’s judge swiftly places his ring on the table and departs. It’s the key insight of this production involving anyone else but McCrory.

Nick Fletcher with Mr Miller’s stunning speech as he detects her second attempt at suicide, is almost youthful. McCrory reacts wonderfully. Able as he is, Fletcher doesn’t convey the heartrending but stoic recognition between them, that though his life’s ruined he chooses life. With his coaxing she might. Miller encourages her gift as a painter with true insight. 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 able work too from Adetomiwa Edun as Freddie’s RAF chum Jackie Jackson in neat casting reminding us how many Spitfire pilots, like E.R. Braithwaite (of To Sir, With Love), were black. But bar flashes from Fletcher in particular, and an appealing ardency from Burke on occasion, McCrory has no-one to truly react to. Perhaps that, in this cavernous Scutt set, is the point, but there have been more dynamic, more heartrending conclusions. The coda, however is masterly, Hester frying an egg, sitting down to grey-green living. McCrory fills that set with Hester as few can ever have.