THEATRE / Down in the depths of passion: The Deep Blue Sea - Almeida Theatre

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The Independent Culture
When Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea was last revived in London, Penelope Keith took the lead as Hester Collyer, the judge's wife who is living in sin with (and helplessly besotted by) a shallow former test-pilot who can't adjust to the post-war world. Her performance was an instructive failure. While it is eminently possible to picture Keith giving a brisk, no- nonsense pep talk to a woman who had tried to gas herself through failed love, the imagination rebels at the idea of her being in that position herself. Her limitations made you appreciate the range required of an actress in this role: from the tragi-comedy of compromised gentility to the obsessive, self-destructive passion of a Fifties Phedre. One of nature's bucklers-to, Keith pulled herself together beautifully without having first torn herself apart.

In Karel Reisz's splendidly judged revival at the Almeida, the character is played by Penelope Wilton whose comedy credentials are numerous. But people who saw her as the warped, infatuated Hermione in Jonathan Miller's production of Andromache will need no persuading of her capacity to touch the Racinian notes in Hester, the middle-class vicar's daughter. Of course, the emotion is much more clenched and 'well- bred' in the Rattigan, but in both roles Wilton excels at portraying a woman who can stare with appalled (almost comic) clarity at the humiliating cost of her fixation and then stubbornly snap back to deluding herself.

'If equal love there cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me': W H Auden's request does him credit but it sounds more than faintly like wishful thinking. With humane even-handedness, The Deep Blue Sea shows how in a relationship where there is a severe imbalance of desire, both parties are liable to be the casualties of it. Linus Roache's wonderful Freddie, giving the impression at times of a handsome cross between Biggles and Basil Brush, shows you an immature chap floundering out of his depth, the slangy RAF bluster serving as his punctured lifebelt. He lets you see the incipient lout in this young man, but also subtly hints at levels of confused, hapless sensitivity. Freddie's failure to rise to Hester's erotic occasion has forced him to focus painfully on his own inadequacies - so it is that the relationship, as Roache helps you realise, counts as tragic for him too.

There are two standard complaints about this work: that it's a transposed gay play and that it's at times creakingly 'well made'. The answer to the first charge is - so what? The indirectness - necessitated by censorship - arguably adds to the play's power, reinforcing a sense of turbulent passion trapped with no adequate outlet in a dreary, repressed society. As for the second charge, Reisz airbrushes away some of the problems by the ingenious device of a translucent wall dividing the hall and communal stairs from the dingy bolt-hole of a flat in William Dudley's cleverly evocative design. Because we can see people making their way towards a scene, the 'surprise' arrivals and coincidences don't seem nearly so mechanically crafted.

There's excellent support from Nicholas Jones, who captures the wistful kindliness and the class- blinkeredness of the judge-husband, and from Wojtek Pszoniak as the old struck-off doctor who helps Hester. He brings a subversive veiled sarcasm to his polite dealings with her other visitors which stops the character from seeming a sentimental device.

The direction illuminates throughout, from the opening moment when a dance band is playing 'People Will Say We're In Love' on the radio as Hester's unconscious body is discovered, to the poignant closing picture of the heroine clearing out her lover's things, and hungrily sniffing his scent on the clothes she is packing away.

The Deep Blue Sea continues until 6 March at the Almeida, London N1 (Box office: 071-359 4404).