The Deep Blue Sea – Lyttelton Theatre, London

Writer:Terence Rattigan
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Reviewer:Deborah Parry

“When you’re stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, you choose the sea,”says Hester Collyer when asked why she’d attempted to take her own life – which is how this play begins – with our protagonist sprawled out on the floor by the fireplace in her Ladbrook Grove flat, and her neighbours frantically trying to revive her. There is no easing us in – this is tense drama and Terence Rattigan does it extremely well.

The play, originally staged in 1952, explores the relationship between Hester Collyer and her lover Freddy Page. Hester has left her husband, William Collyer – an esteemed high court judge – to enter into this relationship with former RAF pilot Freddy (who is now unemployed) and it seems that she has gone straight from the frying pan into the fire. It would, perhaps, be inaccurate to say that there is a love triangle at the centre of the piece – rather, that the depth of feeling between the main characters is one that they, themselves, struggle to define – and it is this that dominates the plot.

There is a constant feeling of doom, which is driven by Hester’s struggle to accept that Freddy does not love her in the way that she desperately needs him to. It is clear that her turmoil will continue until some resolution or, as her neighbours attempt to compel her towards, acceptance. They mean well but demonstrate varying levels of tact in trying to persuade her to choose life, which she handles with an unexpected level of humour and calmness. It is only the doctor, Mr Miller, who attended to Hester following her suicide attempt (and has been struck off for reasons never explained) who is the only one that shows any real level of empathy. It is clear that he shares Hester’s sensitivity and there are hints that his life experiences mirror her own- as he describes it ‘who really understands? One in a 1000’.

The set and lighting design are both bold and detailed- characters enter and exit via a staircase, which is in shadow behind a screen and uses the full height of the Lyttleton’s stage – this is visually unusual and engaging. Subtle blue hues feature throughout and both naturalistic and more contemporary striking lighting states are equally effective and provide a catching contrast in style.

The pace of dialogue is constantly varied and lines are occasionally lost as they are mumbled at lightening speed – which, although frustrating at times, is also highly effective in conveying an undertone of mania. The sound design bellows rather too loudly on occasion and it is difficult to know whether this is deliberate or a technical issue.

As one might expect from The National, the cast is exceptionally strong and all are worthy of praise for delivering sensitive, specific and focused performances. Helen McCrory (Hester) almost seems to glide delicately across the stage at times, empathising the fragility of the character, but also brings with her a weight and a commanding presence.

The Deep Blue Sea is the second Rattigan revival to have been staged at The National in as many years and, although this production is not flawless, it is a thoroughly competent and polished piece, that greatly impresses.

Runs until 21 September 2016 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith

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