The Deep Blue Sea @ Richmond Theatre, London

cast list
Greta Scacchi
Simon Williams
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart
Tim McMullan
Jacqueline Tong
Jack Tarlton
Geoff Breton
Rebecca O’Mara

directed by
Edward Hall
About 10 to 15 years ago, Terence Rattigan emerged from a decades-long slump during which his work had been largely ignored and even derided as old-fashioned and reactionary. Since then he has become re-established as one of the finest 20th Century playwrights, revivals springing up with increasing regularity. Perhaps his best play, The Deep Blue Sea was last seen at Richmond Theatre just four or five years ago and it now returns in a touring production, directed by Edward Hall.

Rattigan has a good deal in common with Ibsen. It’s not just that he was writing at the tail-end of naturalism or that they share an ability to produce well-made three act plays with beautifully crafted structures and compelling curtain-lines. Both also poured so much of themselves into their works. If Hedda Gabler is a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, then Rattigan too took the most intimate stuff of his personal life and put it before the audience, albeit heavily coded. Both were also exploring emotion within a society of stultifying conventions.

Nowhere is this more the case than in The Deep Blue Sea, which grew out of his affair with a young actor who committed suicide, causing Rattigan the greatest personal crisis of his life. What emerged from this tragedy was the story of a woman (in 1952 it couldn’t be a man, as he originally intended) who had everything to give emotionally but nobody to reciprocate.

In Hall’s delicate and detailed production, the classic triangle familiar to us from works of literature from Madame Bovary onwards of a passionate woman married to a thoroughly decent but dull man and swept away by a charming younger gallant is clearly drawn. What comes across more than I’ve seen before is the parent/child relationship between Hester and the ex-Battle of Britain pilot Freddie. Shortly after discussing the implications of their childless marriage with her estranged husband, she smoothes her lover’s collar and cleans his shoes for him in a way that suggests that she’s looking for a child to care for as much as a romantic partner. It seems to be a key to the interpretation.

As the older woman who leaves the comfort of her upper-middle class marriage for a shabby, peeling bedsit in an undesirable part of town to be with her toyboy, Greta Scacchi is very moving in her despair and inspiring in the inner reserves she finally finds. Simon Williams’ stiff judge, the husband who wants her back, is touching in his helplessness and together they draw a convincing picture of a caring but sterile relationship, echoes of the husband and wife in Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.

Tim McMullan is outstanding as the defrocked doctor Miller, bringing a dark ambiguity to the role. It’s a slightly strange performance, hinting at malevolence which ultimately proves to be tremendous compassion and wisdom. It may have been timidity on Rattigan’s part to keep Miller’s secret unspoken (was the crime for which he went to jail that of being a backstreet abortionist or was he merely homosexual, then of course an imprisonable and career-destroying offence?).

The production is immaculately cast, with Jack Tarlton excellent as a chinless Jackie, the other ex-RAF chum, full of “Old Boy”s and squirming with embarrassment as he and Freddie are caught indiscreetly dissecting the mess that spewed from something as seemingly trivial as a forgotten birthday. Rebecca O’Mara and Geoff Breton do wonders as the ingenuous young couple from upstairs and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, while lacking the animal magnetism to make complete sense of Hester’s romantic longings, gives Freddie a vulnerability beneath all the vain selfishness. His final exit is that of a small bewildered boy struggling to comprehend that this needy woman is finding the strength to face life without him.

The production, which originated at the Theatre Royal, Bath, plays at Richmond for a week and then continues its tour to Clwyd and Canterbury.

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