Helen McCrory has proved time and time again that she is a very accomplished actress who can tackle and succeed in playing tragedy, comedy and everything else in between. In this production of Terence Rattigan’s best play, The Deep Blue Sea, she has again teamed up with Carrie Cracknell who directed her in the superb Medea at The National a couple of years ago and is, once again, perfection.
The play opens with Hester Collyer (Helen McCrory) lying stretched out in front of an unlit gas fire, her suicide attempt having failed because she has forgotten to put a shilling in the gas meter. From this moment on, during the space of just one day, we discover the reason for her desire to end it all.
Set in London in 1952, this is a time when living with a man whilst not married was termed living in sin, homosexuality was illegal, as was suicide and England was coming to terms with the end of World War II. Hester is deemed a “fallen woman” in that she is cohabiting with Freddie (Tom Burke), an ex RAF pilot, in a shabby room in a two-storey rooming house. Freddie, we soon realise, is the love of Hester’s life and the reason she has left the security of a marriage to high court judge, William (Peter Sullivan). Sadly for her, Freddie doesn’t, or at least can’t, fully reciprocate. He does love her in his own way but it is not the all-consuming passionate devotion she feels for him. It is tearing her in two.
It is testament to the desire she has to live her life with this younger man that she has risked everything for love and can’t return to her husband, despite his appeal for her to do so. McCrory conveys this beautifully. Whenever Freddie arrives back home, she sparkles and becomes whole, visibly shrinking when he leaves. When the inevitable happens and he prepares to leave for good, her panic and desperation, rise to the surface, turning this sensuous woman into an hysteric. Such is the power of McCrory’s performance that we palpably feel her despair, especially when we know that Hester is under no illusion that no amount of wheedling or clinging will make him stay.
Although it is McCrory who makes this production great, the other performances are good. There is a genuine fondness and warmth in the exchanges between Hester and her husband, thanks in part to Peter Sullivan (a younger William than normal) delicately imbuing his character with a quiet intensity. She returns to corporate wife mode in his company, playfully asking after various mutual acquaintances, but we know as he does that Hester will never return to the marital home. Her passion for Freddie is out of control. Thus we feel a sadness for William too.
Tom Burke ensures that we understand Freddie is not a total rat. We sense his inability to give himself up wholly to loving this woman has more than a lot to do with his war experiences. Swaggering and insensitive he may be, but Freddie also exudes a sadness that cannot be assuaged.
Tom Scutt’s design inhabits the whole of the huge Lyttleton stage and its size only heightens Hester’s diminishing control. Helen McCrory is tiny and, encased in her one room whilst the other inhabitants of the rooming house can be seen ghostlike going about their lives, emphasizes her vulnerability. Not that she is overwhelmed by the massive dull aquamarine structure; I doubt this actress could be overwhelmed by anything.
Some of Rattigan’s own experiences are mirrored in this play, which, along with the performances in this production, ensure The Deep Blue Sea is the perfect vehicle for highlighting “the illogicality of passion”. Not only that but it is incredibly moving.