Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea is one of the masterpieces of theatre written in the Twentieth Century. It provides a central female character to rival the great modern heroines of Ibsen or Chekhov – Hester Collyer, a woman for whom passion has special reverberations. Helen McCrory, who promised an “irreverent Hester”, delivers just that – an irreverent portrait of a fractured, modern, soul-less woman in a production that is too tricksy for its own good and fails to appreciate the elegance and inspiration inherent in Rattigan’s writing.

Deep Blue Sea

Directorial folly can scupper even the most carefully constructed and beautifully written plays as Carrie Cracknell’s indulgent and stylistically incoherent production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, currently playing in the National’s Lyttleton Theatre, so succinctly demonstrates.

This is a play set in a very particular period. A period when divorce and living in sin were almost capital crimes; certainly, they were reputation smashing events. It’s an age when scandal and gossip had a special potency, when secrets and honour went hand in hand. When people who attempted suicide were routinely arrested and convicted. It’s that very fussy, very formal post-war London, when smoking and drinking was not even the remotest concern to a pregnant woman; when lunch for two at the Ritz could be had for less than £2.

All of this is integral to Rattigan’s text; it infuses every aspect of character and plot.

Equally, the play is a poignant, domestic drama; its a small, harrowing play, not a huge epic looking for a great big stage like the Lyttleton. All of this has been made more obvious by the triumph of Mike Poulton’s riff on Rattigan’s great play: Kenny Morgan, a play which presents an almost alternative universe version of The Deep Blue Sea, where an homosexual affair is front and centre instead of the Hester/Freddie/William tangle. Small, intimate, drenched in period feeling, Kenny Morgan proved very moving and a faithful imagining of how Rattigan might have written The Deep Blue Sea had it been possible for him to do so without becoming a society pariah.

The Deep Blue Sea has never failed, no matter how many times one has sent it, to bring tears to the eyes. Cracknell has succeeded where all others have failed: her production is cold and brittle, completely lacking in soul, carnal rather than passionate and, most impressively, leaves one uncaring whether Hester lives or dies. Not a tear in sight, either on my cheek or on the cheek of anyone nearby.

Deep Blue Sea

There are many reasons for this but the central one is Helen McCrory’s Hester. Peggy Ashcroft created this role and it has been played by notable actors such as Penelope Wilton, Isabel Dean, Great Scacchi and Maxine Peake. McCrory, a tremendous actress in the right part, generally better on screen than on stage, is not an obvious choice for the shattered, desperate and intensely human creature that is Hester Collyer. Fragility is not something which is easy for McCrory to pull off.

Before the season started, McCrory indicated that there was more than one way to play Hester and that she was looking to give an “irreverent Hester”. Certainly, her Hester is not the one you expect to see in The Deep Blue Sea although it is precisely the Hester you expect to see when you hear McCrory is playing the part. There are no surprises here, no stunning new insights into either the character or McCrory’s range as an actor.

This Hester has a razor sharp edge, oddly. This generates a deal of comedy, which is welcome enough. But her sense of frustration and loss and her swimming between the Devil (her ardent impulsive adoration for the feckless, broken former war hero, Freddie) and the Deep Blue Sea (the great unknown, where she must survive alone) is more demented than depressed, more maniacal than obsessed and, ultimately, more dull than exhilarating.

Because she fails to imbue Hester with any sense of broken humanity, her great cry after Freddie leaves her at the end of Act Two, one of the most wrought moments in theatre, is shrill and hollow. Loud, but lacking in the essential soul-tearing desperation.

There is a modernity about McCrory’s Hester which sits badly with the character and the play. There are two surprising scenes which illustrate this: one, where Freddie appears to digitally arouse Hester; and another, where she presses his hand over her nightgown, urging his palm to her womanhood while going behind herself to his manhood. Its just not the kind of thing which sits well with the dialogue and the situation. A modern woman, no problems. Hester Collyer? Irreverent doesn’t seem apt enough to cover this. Lust can be demonstrated in more subtle ways.

Deep Blue Sea

This is not to say that McCrory is terrible in the role; she’s not. She is just playing a Hester that Cracknell thinks works and, presumably, makes the play more “relevant”. But Cracknell is in error. The play’s relevance lies in its universality, a universality that comes directly from the time in which it is set. Hester is not an anachronism; she represents the torment of women who are treated badly by men. She doesn’t need a modern edge to be triumphant, vibrantly engaging, supremely relevant.

McCrory does her best work with Nick Fletcher’s Mr Miller, the struck-off doctor who assists her after her suicide attempt and whose constant vigilance thwarts her second try. They are like two outsiders finding a surprising commonality. Just as Freddie’s unthinking heartlessness drives Hester to despair, Miller’s brutal pragmatism in the face of a chequered past (he was interred during the war and recently jailed for crimes unknown – perhaps sodomy?) is what snaps her out of her lethargy, makes her decide on stronger strokes in the deep blue sea.

Equally, the awkward attempt by her neighbour, Philip Welch (Hubert Burton) to share his own story of breached domestic bliss is beautifully done and McCrory shines in dealing with it. Her exchanges with the nosy, gossipy but well-meaning concierge, Mrs Elton, are also excellent; one, a woman strapped to an invalid husband; the other, a woman strapped to an emotional invalid and just out of reach of another. They might speak differently, but their states of being are quite similar. McCrory lets all this bubble to the surface.

Because Hester, married to the ultimate establishment figure, a High Court Judge, has left him, quietly and without a scandal, for the arms and bed of a test pilot, Freddy, who fought in the war and coped with his traumas through alcohol and who, as a result, has found making a living tricky. Lust, something Hester never experienced with Judge William, drives her to Freddy but he cools quickly, not nearly as involved in Hester as she is in him.

His forgetting her birthday is the final straw – Hester attempts suicide by placing her head in the gas powered fireplace. But the meter runs out of credit and the gas switches off. The smell of gas raises the alarm and Hester is found, still breathing, still wrapped in agony.

Deep Blue Sea

The early scenes are handled very well. Marion Bailey is superb as the bustling busy-body, Mrs Elton, who seems to relish bustling with a body other than her husband’s. Perfectly in period, a precise gossip, but a decent soul for the times, Bailey lifts the play every time she appears.

Burton is in terrific form as the awkward anxious neighbour and father-to-be, Welch. He conveys a sense of discombobulated propriety with great cleverness and affability. Quite rightly, he looks and sounds like he might have graduated from Greyfriars and he is both effective and ineffectual at once, carefully laying the groundwork for his final scene in the Third Act with Hester.

Yolanda Kettle, usually such a fine actress, is bizarrely odd as Mrs Welch, stiff, unfeeling towards her husband and generally unpalatable. Given that her relationship with her husband is a reflection of Hester’s with William, it’s hard to say what Cracknell was hoping to achieve by sculpting Kettle into such an un-appealing wife and mother-to-be. Burton, nevertheless, makes the relationship work although it is impossible to specify how.

As the genuine do-gooder with a cryptic and shady past, Nick Fletcher is wonderful as Dr, no Mr, Miller. There is a furtive gentility about him which is radiant; he wears his skills and scars with equal pride. He sums up Hester as no one ever has, and helps her, more through words than medical attention, to see the light.

The one genuinely gripping moment of the evening comes when he interrupts Hester’s second suicide attempt and demands from her the sleeping pill he has given her; his fear at what might happen to him if the authorities found out he gave a sucidal woman medicine is palpable, engorged, terrifically real. It’s superbly judged by Fletcher.

Deep Blue Sea

Sullivan is particularly good as the Judge in the first Act, a sense of detached entitlement wafting through every breath. He is as buttoned up as his Saville Row gear, lofty and uppity, but not offensively so. In the crease of pain that occasionally breaks his face, you see clearly the hurt and bafflement the Judge feels that Hester should have abandonded him and his luxurious life.

This is a very good looking, charmingly urbane Judge and Sullivan works hard on that angle, to excellent effect. He makes the audience wonder why Hester was quite so keen to swap him for Tom Burke’s Freddie. This is smart on Cracknell’s part.

The effect falls slightly apart in the crucial encounter in Act Three, when the Judge offers Hester back her old life as his wife. Although the mood is finely tuned, and the gazes between the two illuminate their inner feelings, when it comes to the moment of actual physical contact, there is too much clumsiness. These people have been married and the familiarity of the mood should have make their contact natural and easy, then dissipating as William realises that something fundamental has changed in Hester.

Rather, Cracknell opts for their encounter to be clumsy and ill- suited. Rather than being tragic or even poignant, the moment becomes something else – an inevitable rebuff. Both characters deserved better, deeper treatment. It’s a pity because in every other way, Sullivan is superb.

Throughout, so is Burke. He masters the broken warrior who has no idea of the damage he is inflicting upon this woman who adores him. You see why Hester was drawn to him, but equally you see how hopeless her wishes are. He doesn’t try for sympathy, but correctly plays the unknowing lothario/alcoholic with gravitas and energy. Like Sullivan, he is strikingly in period.

For both men, the obstacle to their performances is the oddly modern, almost detached Hester.

Deep Blue Sea

But Cracknell imposes other obstacles on the play’s success. The set, Tom Scutt’s work, is very impressive although it is painted an unaccountably sickly green colour. But it is not a set for this play, just as the theatre is not the theatre for this play. It’s too big. It suggests Hester’s life is much better than it should be with Freddie.

Nor is it naturalistic. In a kind of Brechtian nod, you can see the back of the stage clearly at the sides; you are always aware this is a theatre. It is never someone’s home. Unfathomable.

For those seated in the front of the auditorium on the stage left side, a huge lounge chair blocks the view to the fireplace. An odd design idea given the play begins with an attempted suicide at the fireplace and there is another attempt there later in the play.

Green guaze walls show the audience that there is life and movement on the other flats in the building. Quite why this is thought desirable is unclear. Who are these people? Why do we need distractions from Hester’s dilemmas? What is the point? Are they ghosts or reflections of other life? How does their inclusion serve the drama?

There is good lighting (Guy Hoare) and very peculiar sound/music (Peter Rice, Stuart Earl). And Cracknell fiddles with the ending too: instead of Hester lighting the gas oven, a feint to make the audience think she is going to really die when all she does is spark flames, a symbolic representation of “seeing the light”, she eats an egg sandwich she has cooked.

Perhaps a symbolic curate’s egg?

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.