Premiered in 1952, The Deep Blue Sea is the finest play by Terence Rattigan and a perceptive drama about a relationship where both parties suffer because of an inequality of passion. Terence Rattigan had personal experience of this: the suicide of a former male lover spurred him to composition, and by reinventing the situation as a doomed heterosexual affair, he created one of the great female roles of the modern repertoire.
Edward Hall's revival summons up a strong sense of the drab repressiveness of post-war England, but it is disappointingly uneven. Greta Scacchi plays Hester Collyer, the wife of a judge, who has forsaken Eaton Square for a sinful ménage with Freddie Page, an RAF fighter pilot who has failed to adjust to civvy street. She's a middle aged woman channelling an overpowering sexual desire, but her lover can't rise to her erotic occasion or her emotional needs. The imbalance between her craving and his mere affection drives her to a suicide attempt.
Scacchi delivers an oddly erratic performance. In her attempt to convey the tension between overwrought infatuation and well-bred English propriety, there were moments in the first half when she reminded me of those "Armpit Theatre" sketches on Round the Horne that spoofed stiff-upper-lip passion. Equally, as the production warms up, there are raw, harrowing sequences where she truly convinces you that she is lost in the abyss of destructive love and scalding shame.
There's a case to be made, however, that it's Freddie who is the more tragic figure. Dugald Bruce Lockhart shows a man out of his depth and reduced to self-hatred because the affair has confronted him with his emotional inadequacies. With his shattered nerves and drink problem, escaping to become a test-pilot in Canada is a strategy suggestive of despair. Hester will survive; you cannot predict a similar fate for him.
The humour is treated heavy-handedly, but some supporting performances are rich in insight. Simon Williams makes a touching impression as the heroine's husband, and Tim McMullan beautifully underlines the sardonic wit and humanity of the struck-off Middle European doctor, whose fellow-feeling for Hester illustrates the instinctive sympathy for outsiders that is one of Rattigan's creative strengths.
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