Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about the consequences of a failing, desperately sad love affair teems with life in a superbly realised, electrifying production at the National Theatre.
As Hester Collyer, the estranged wife of a judge who has rented semi-comfortable digs with her unsuitable former pilot boyfriend, Helen McCrory provides an enormously believable, heartbreakingly sympathetic portrait of a woman who knows how blind and foolish her infatuation with her new lover is, but also how impossible it is for her to escape it.
After her attempted suicide which opens the play, she is heaped with kindness and decency from all quarters except the one she wants; first from Nick Fletcher’s kindly Mr Miller, a doctor struck off under mysterious circumstances, and then from Peter Sullivan as William Collyer, the rejected husband who wants her back.
The huge Lyttelton stage is beautifully designed in the period style (I have seen it updated, not this time). It is dominated by her comfortable but modest West London flat, which is lit from the back showing the stairs and the doors to other properties from which the characters come and go. It takes us neatly away from the claustrophobia of her world, suggesting a life beyond that is capable of lifting Hester from her madness.
But the compellingly modern heart of the play rests in her inability to resist the selfish, dashing boozy former fighter pilot lover Freddie, played with slurring panache by Tom Burke.
Tom Burke as Freddie and Helen McCrory as Hester
Rattigan’s portrait of a self-destructive sexual yearning that cannot be properly realised has resonances with his own secluded, secret sexual life.
But here it also has an indisputable power of its own in this mesmerising story of human failing and McCrory provides a revelatory performance marred only by the occasional slip when first night jitters caused the cast to run over each other’s lines a couple of times.
What struck me most was her wit. Studied pauses and sardonic quips are teased from the lines thanks to McCrory’s impeccable timing; she is a woman after all with a gift for conversation, thought and artistic skill (she is a pretty good painter we gather) who has thrown away her comfortable life for one of hopeless passion. The way McCrory’s eyes light up while her estranged husband tells stories about their acquaintances shows what she has left behind. We see her enjoying the recollections, getting a sense that she was a dazzling social asset to her husband, but finding herself haplessly incapable of wanting her old life back.
The narcissistic Freddie is played in a manner less charming than in some productions I have seen. But he’s hard to like at the best of times. He forgets his lover’s birthday and convinces her that he had planned to buy her some cigarettes as a present after her suicide attempt. Burke does allow us to see the difficulty of not being able to reciprocate the intensity of her love. He also emphasises his drunkenness – which helps us understand him as a man who has turned to booze to help him cope with his sadness and frustration at no longer being able to fly Spitfires in Britain’s darkest hour.
His failings lead one to question Hester’s sanity even more. But McCrory’s skill is showing the knowingness of Hester’s madness, and how even this most beautiful, capable and talented woman can be a total fool for love before the redemptive final scenes when reality finally takes hold and the light creeps tentatively in.
The Deep Blue Sea is at the National Theatre, Lyttelton, until 21 September.