The Deep Blue Sea review – Rattigan's furious tide of doomed passion

Minerva, Chichester
Nancy Carroll is magnificent as a woman shamed by a failed affair with a younger man, in a play that seethes with postwar English anger

Two critics, a Young Turk and an Old Hack, emerge from a performance of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play. On the journey home, they fall into eager debate.

Young Turk: What an amazing play! I never knew old man Rattigan had so much blood in him. But you’re probably fed up with seeing this piece by now?

Old Hack: Not at all. I think it’s Rattigan’s profoundest exploration of one of his favourite themes: the inequality of passion. After all, it shows a woman, Hester Collyer, driven to suicidal desperation by the inability of her lover, Freddie Page, to fulfil her emotional and sexual needs. It says a lot about postwar England while offering a timeless study of the human heart.

YT: That’s what I loved about Paul Foster’s production. I’d expected something a bit tight-lipped and restrained, like Brief Encounter. But Hester and Freddie really go at it hammer and tongs. Freddie, who has had a good war but can’t adjust to the postwar world, reminded me of the heroine of David Hare’s Plenty, and Hester even prefigures John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter in her need for a partner who can match her fire.

OH: All true. But this is also a play about a very English kind of male inhibition – which is perfectly exemplified by Hester’s high court judge husband, Sir William, who pleads with her to return. His tragedy is that he is a victim of his class in the way he equates love with social convention, but Gerald Kyd is encouraged to play him with such table-thumping ferocity that you’re almost surprised Hester doesn’t go back to him.

Gerald Kyd plays Hester’s husband Sir William.
Class tragedy … Gerald Kyd plays Hester’s husband Sir William. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

YT: You’re dead wrong. The production’s whole point is that all these characters have a hidden fury. That’s true of Hadley Fraser’s Freddie, who is not just some cheery ex-RAF chappie but a man whose sense of failure drives him to drink and who is the play’s real victim, in that he goes off to almost certain death.

OH: Fair enough. But did the actors have to shout so much? Perhaps we can agree about Nancy Carroll’s Hester. At times, she looked at Freddie with the tender gaze of the hopelessly smitten: at other times, as when she swept a bottle of whisky off the table, she seemed to pulsate with rage. I liked her best, however, when she was at her quietest, as in the scenes with the struck-off doctor – beautifully played by Matthew Cottle – where she perfectly caught Hester’s sense of shame and despair.

YT: I thought she was magnificent all through. She conveyed Hester’s hysteria but there were also subtle touches such as the way she carefully packed in Freddie’s luggage the two things that mattered most to him: a mounted cricket ball and a copy of Wisden!

OH: That was good. But I still feel in Rattigan there is a tension between the power of the emotion and the means of expression, which I only truly felt in the desolate final moments.

YT: That’s a cliched vision of how Rattigan should be played. I loved this production because it was about two incompatible souls trapped in an impossible situation. I’d unhesitatingly give it five stars.

OH: I’d give it three.

YT: Shall we agree to split the difference?

At the Minerva, Chichester, until 27 July.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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