Theatre: The timeless grandeur of love

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS A distinct, if somewhat guilt-edged sense of comfort in settling down to watch a Terence Rattigan play. The prevailing milieu of middle-class decorum - albeit struggling to keep the lid on less seemly impulses - together with the exhaustively realised naturalism of set, costumes and dialogue, produces a kind of nostalgic, nursery-food satisfaction. Muriel Romanes's production successfully enlists these responses to deliver considerable emotional impact, thanks to a clutch of quietly searing lead performances, even if the play cannot, overall, shake off its burdensome period baggage.

Premiered in 1952 (and recently voted one of the century's best plays by the National Theatre), The Deep Blue Sea reflects its birthdate's post- war preoccupations both in the character of Freddie, a former fighter pilot floundering to find himself in peacetime, and its central adulterous relationship, embodying the nascent moral and social revolution that consigned Rattigan's preferred dramatic world to history.

His conjunction of England's heroic finest with the then shocking figure of Hester Collyer, who has left her husband, a wealthy senior judge, to live with Freddie in a Notting Hill rooming-house, represents a boldly radical one for its day, aiming to muddy the audience's sympathies (especially given Freddie's heavy drinking and general fecklessness, set against Hester's irreducible dignity), and thus disturb their preconceptions.

The play's key difficulty is that the preconceptions in question barely exist any more, certainly not in the solid, wholesale form they did in 1952 (even if tabloid headlines might routinely suggest otherwise), so that the primary implications of Hester's position have almost nothing to resound against.

When realised with the sharpness of focus and minutely delineated complexity that characterises Lynn Farleigh's performance, however, Hester's at-any- cost commitment to the primacy of elemental love, both pitted against and coupled with all the "breeding" she's been raised to exhibit, does take on a timeless, even tragic grandeur.

But this, too, while magnificently to the fore in the scenes played with John Woodvine (Farleigh's real-life spouse), as Hester's estranged husband, is elsewhere significantly undermined by Thomas Lockyer's superficially convincing but lightweight Freddie, whose nervily mannered, emotionally constipated boyishness fails to achieve sufficient depth or stature to seem capable of inspiring such near-fatal passion. The role's potential for escaping its period specificity, by opening up such still-contemporary windows as the relationship between masculinity and war, and the fear of intimacy that continues to bedevil so many men's relationships with women, therefore remains largely unfulfilled.

What does achieve a greater transcendence is the almost subtextual sweetener to the devastation of Hester's dreams, articulated chiefly through the supporting players.

The unexpected reserves of tolerance and generosity revealed in Hester's landlady and neighbours, all vividly but subtly portrayed (with Robert Demeger as the disgraced ex-doctor who twice saves her life, movingly standing out), powerfully suggest the humbler but often more durably sustaining rewards entailed in both giving and receiving acts of simple human kindness.

Sue Wilson

To 6 Feb (0131-248 4848)