The Deep Blue Sea

The Royal Exchange, Manchester

Nowadays of course Hester Collyer would go to Art College. Since men in neither of their ordained roles - solid husband, exciting lover - have been able to fulfil her, she would re-make her own life among the diligent, determined class of modern mature students. Both exes might even attend her graduation.

That such a future is only faintly discernible for the heroine of Terence Rattigan's play is the most palpable sign of how it has dated since 1952. Nevertheless we should not be too brisk, for the emotional knotting of Hester, her lawyer husband Sir William, and the ex-fighter ace Freddie for whom she left him, cannot be loosed by a spot of educational counselling.

Both men offer her something, but neither of them enough despite how she clings to the feckless Freddie. In Susan Wooldridge's increasingly vivid portrayal, what she craves might be described as a sense of drama. Freddie complains that her attempted suicide is "dramatising", and, as we come to know Wooldridge's impulsive, extravagant swoops and turns - her full, red skirt swirling about her (especially as she determines to turn on the gas again) - we all but agree.

But her gestures are the more desperately pronounced because their cramped rented rooms do not allow her the one thing William did provide: a social stage on which to express herself, the one thing from their life together she misses. Her reduced circumstances are baldly evoked in Geraldine Pilgrim's set in which the familiar bedsit dowdiness is fenced in by the naked skeleton of the house's copper gas pipes. Seemingly her theatricality brings her dangerously close to appearing shallow, but, as with Ibsen's Nora, her extroversion is the beating of a personality against confinement. That she has found sexual expression through Freddie is powerfully apparent here, but at the price of every other attenuation.

However, Marianne Elliott - whose direction goes from strength to strength at the Exchange - also draws playing from her male principals which shows the play's enduring strength to lie in its balance. Maybe in his speech recommending duty and will, Thomas Wheatley allows us to keep too many of our preconceptions about William, but he is still roundly and sympathetically played. Paul Hickey's superb Freddie is physically elegant and as pliant as a willow, mirroring his irresolution. His immature peevishness as he snatches his shoes from the slavish Hester, and even more the clumsy sarcasm with which he throws her a shilling for the gas are vile, but the equally maladroit way he articulates his loathing of "emotions", is poignant and pathetic. The smaller roles are also strongly played, especially Phillips Peak as the bushy-tailed young neighbour.

Perhaps it is our enhanced sense of Hester's options which means her plight does not approach the tragic. But, if it were Drama School she went on to, she would be lucky to find work so absorbing.

To 13 Dec. Box office: 0161-833 9833

Jeffrey Wainwright