Theatre: The Deep Blue Sea Theatr Clwyd, Mold

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The Independent Culture
"We know that love/ Needs more than the admiring excitement of union/ Needs death ... our death." Hester Collyer, the heroine of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, would concur with these lines of Auden, and the opening reveals her intent to give love its ultimate tribute - not in any high Roman fashion, but stretched before a gas-fire in rented rooms.

It is interesting to note the persistence of such settings in modern English drama. Even now, in David Hare's Skylight, the self-lacerations of English love seem to require the same surroundings, as though insisting both upon the incongruity of passion in these parts and upon dingy flats as the emblematic cockpit of England.

In such circumstances, to love as Hester loves Freddie Page, the charming ex-fighter pilot descending further into inebriate peacetime fecklessness, might appear heroic or stupid. It is to the credit both of Rattigan's writing and of Rosemary McHale's performance that she seems neither. The famous clipped reserve of the upper-middle classes still grates, but it also convinces us of the layers of repression that result in their near inarticulacy and amateurish introspection. McHale's Hester is indeed barely likeable. She is brave enough to make us glad we don't live upstairs while still drawing sympathy.

We can even see her from her lover's self-absorbed viewpoint. Taxed though Freddie is beyond his eloquence, in Ben Walden's strong performance we glimpse genuine bewilderment and pain at the realisation that he cannot reciprocate the kind of love she offers. For him life at its fullest is - was - to be found elsewhere, and his sadness is that what he calls "getting tangled up in other people's emotions" will never replace that.

His predicament with Hester mirrors that of his supposed opposite, the impeccable Sir William Collyer (Christopher Good), the successful lawyer Hester abandoned for admiration and excitement with her flying ace. William believes in the sanctity of marriage, an institution he sees as serving much the same sort of purpose as bones in shirt collars, and, for a woman, one as constricting. What Hester calls love, both men see as omnivorous female possessiveness. They are half-right in that her desire is unliveable, hence its eventual need to turn on the gas. How The Deep Blue Sea negotiates the impasse between giving way to these men's notion of moderation and the romantic nihilism of suicide is its fascination. If the conclusion is not finally convincing then that lies more with Rattigan's means of resolution than with Janet Suzman's absorbing and balanced production.

n To 25 May. (01352 755114)

JEFFREY WAINWRIGHT

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