Our second helping of Rattigan last Saturday was the much acclaimed “The Deep Blue Sea”, originally produced in 1952 in a run that lasted 513 performances. This was a time when Rattigan’s career was really riding high, and in fact many commentators think this is his best play. In “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, with which we matinéed earlier, Rattigan says “my women are women, and they’re bloody well-written ones”. Hester Collyer, of whom we see a very turbulent day in a rather depressing life, is probably the epitome of this statement. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the play starts with her failed gassing suicide attempt and ends with her again turning the gas on but this time merely to light the fire. The character progression prompted Mrs Chrisparkle to announce that the play was a supreme statement of optimism. I just found it hard to get past the sadness that Hester wanted to commit suicide.
What is notable about this production is the way it faithfully represents the 1950s and presents that rather dark age in a completely ungimmicky and unembellished way. If you look at the photo of the 1952 set, it’s virtually identical to the set at Chichester. The main difference is that the gas fire is now downstage so that Hester more or less has to look the front stalls in the eye when she turns the fire on, whereas before it was more discreetly positioned against the upstage wall. The furnishings are practical rather than comfortable; the costumes reflect the repressed and impoverished surroundings. Philip Franks the director has adhered to the three-act format – morning, afternoon and evening of this rather enormous day – and not caved in to the modern desire for the symmetrical structure of one central interval. You feel as though this is exactly how this play would have been presented sixty years ago.
You must draw your own conclusions at to the precise reason for Hester’s suicide attempt, but her two options for bliss are current companion Freddie, who was probably once a bit of a wartime hero but is now an idle drunk, and previous husband William, who is willing to accept her back, but as a possession rather than because of love. Amanda Root’s Hester is brave, calm, sometimes in control, often in agonies of despair. As the two men interact with her you see her formulating her views on them, shoring herself up for the future, and gaining strength from every resolve she makes. It’s a very good performance; tugging at the heartstrings at the right times whilst maintaining whatever dignity she can muster as a failed suicider.
John Hopkins is Freddie; another good performance combining the roguish charm that presumably first attracted Hester with an irascible post-war self-disappointment which has resulted in his becoming a waster. In the RAF he had been a dashing test pilot; with the benefit of hindsight you would now consider him a prime candidate for Gulf War Syndrome or a possible beneficiary of Help for Heroes. There were times in the first act when I felt John Hopkins rushed and garbled his lines a little – so much so that I found some of his speeches a bit hard to follow. And that’s before the character had had too much to drink. Still he very much looked the part and the agonies that Freddie feels came across as real and disturbing.
At the other end of the social spectrum, Anthony Calf’s Sir William Collyer is the embodiment of buttoned-up stiff-upper-lippishness, his ultra-respectability in the rather slovenly surroundings effectively suggesting that their two lives are long past the chance of converging. When he offers to take her back, pointing out that she is devaluing herself by staying with Freddie, there is barely any increase the warmth of his voice, and you know that it’s not a question of love. It’s another very effective performance; I only know Anthony Calf as Strickland in TV’s New Tricks, and I just got a sneaking suspicion that he feels comfortable playing rather cold, authoritarian figures. Was the whole role just a little too easy for him?
Encouraged by the slightly mysterious Mr (Don’t call me Doctor) Miller who attends to her medical needs, Hester’s decision to let both men go their separate ways and to live her life alone is the big positive step at the end of the play. However, despite its forward-looking conclusion, it’s not the kind of play where you bounce out of the auditorium at the end and click your heels jauntily on the way to the car park. It’s a deep, thoughtful and moving play, and this production gives it the full respect it deserves.
Celebrity news: whilst I nipped to the Gents, Mrs Chrisparkle queued to pre-order interval drinks, and in line in front of her was none other than Richard Wilson. That’s twice we’ve been in the same audience as him. Naturally when she told me later I had to let rip an “I Don’t Believe It”, which is the ordained form of response whenever his name is mentioned. One last piece of advice – if you pre-order tea and coffee for the interval, by the time you get to drink it, it’s cold. Stick to the Chenin Blanc in future.