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The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre, London): Review

deep blue sea In too deep. Tom Burke (left) and Helen McCrory (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Hubert Smith.

Whilst the production doesn’t lose the intensity of Rattigan’s text, The Deep Blue Sea loses its punch in this overblown production.

Hester Collyer is found in her apartment unconscious by her neighbours after attempting to commit suicide by gas poisoning. Whilst she recovers, they have contacted her estranged husband, a High Court Judge, who comes back to save Hester from her fate. Over the course of the day, Hester finds herself fighting for; the love of her lover, ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page; her sanity; and her life, in The Deep Blue Sea.

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Don’t judge. Peter Sullivan (left) and Helen McCrory (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Hubert Smith.

Writing

If The Deep Blue Sea sounds a little familiar to something else I’ve reviewed recently, that’s because it is. Kenny Morgan at the Arcola Theatre is a play about the real life events that inspired The Deep Blue Sea, and thus the narratives are unsurprisingly similar. The Deep Blue Sea is perhaps one of Rattigan’s most renowned plays, given its unapologetic and complicated look at love, suicide, and mental health, that was nothing short of bold when it premiered in 1952. Its endearing nature is not just the intensity and depth that Rattigan pours into The Deep Blue Sea, fueled by the suicide and circumstances of Kenny Morgan’s death, but some of the most striking and beautiful lines ever to have been uttered in the theatre.

The sheer joy of Rattigans writing in The Deep Blue Sea, as well as many of his other plays, is that he manages to touch upon the frantic turmoil of being alive that few other playwrights then, and even now, can do with such astonishing empathy and grace. Furthermore, he touches upon taboos when it comes to love and lust that are quite daring but always painfully true. Yet Rattigan always manages to keeps things within the bounds of decency with some incredibly veiled but none the less beautiful turns of phrases and pointed discussions.

There is very little, if anything, to criticise about Rattigan’s writing. The characters are deeply observed and fluidly written, of which all are so believable that it makes it so easy to connect with them in one way or another: Hester’s lovelorn desperation and dependency, Freddie’s withdrawal from his RAF glory days, or even William Colyer’s deep sense of loss over and concern for Hester despite his pompous veneer. There’s even plenty of splatterings of dark humour which so often find their way into real life situations of those on the edge of reason. Many times you find yourself completely gripped by the brutal intensity of life that inhabits The Deep Blue Sea, making it the enduring masterpiece it is.

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Waves of despair. Helen McCrory as Hester Collyer in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Hubert Smith.

Direction & Production

Although not quite the behemoth that is the Olivier theatre, The Lyttleton is by no means tiny, and this is perhaps the main issue with the production of The Deep Blue Sea. Given its sizable stage, it always seems a shame to waste such generous width and height by not do anything with these. But the trick is knowing when and when not to use this, and whether it’s appropriate for plays of such condensed action like The Deep Blue Sea to be staged in such a caverness setting.

None the less, Tom Scutt’s set design is absolutely stunning: a towering blued-hued townhouse of mesh walls that make its inhabitants appear ghost-like as they traipse around the stairways and their rooms, bringing out the fact that not all is as private or as clear as they appear. But it’s just too much. The Deep Sea can, and has, been performed in more intimate spaces with more reserved production that creates a tinder-box atmosphere of focus and caprice. The action of The Deep Blue Sea sometimes feels a little lost among the high ceilings, the climbing floors, and the long rooms of Scutt’s comprehensive use of the Lyttleton’s space, and its vastness means you lose the punch of Rattigan’s potency. By comparison, Kenny Morgan’s set and use of space worked incredibly well and really compressed the drama into something rather good with much less thrown at it compared to The Deep Blue Sea, and it’s a shame that refined and restrained essence is far from captured here.

Topping off the needlessly ostentatious production, there are sequences where a gaggle of tenement dwellers come and go, including a handful of people who don’t appear in The Deep Blue Sea whatsoever. Whilst it looks impressive and adds a touch of pacing for scene transitions, they don’t have any effect or impact on the narrative at all. Not only does this add several additional actors to an already eight strong character list, it draws the attention away from the contained high-drama of Hester’s figurative suffocation below. It might look grand, but overall effect is nominal, causing you to question whether the production understands the intimacy of The Deep Blue Sea.

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Crash landing. Tom Burke as Freddie Page in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Hubert Smith.

This is a shame, because everything about the finer points of Carrie Cracknell’s direction suggests it does. Cracknell pushes and pulls the moments of Hester’s neurosis to the point that it’s almost exhausting. The Deep Blue Sea is hardly a comfy stroll for the audience, but then, neither is contemplating suicide. Cracknell’s whiplash pacing really brings out the volatility of Hester’s situation, and its ecstatic. Even when moments of silence or little happening are drawn out and deliberately awkward, Cracknell’s direction makes The Deep Blue Sea feel like it’s going to snap at any moment. Then there are the aching exchanges between characters, especially Hester and Miller, that are so piqued with force and detail, that they nearly break you. It’s just a shame that the space means that Cracknell’s explosive pacing is not as spectacular as it could be if more confined.

There are many other marvelous touches to the production, though. Peter Rice’s sound design is oppressive and nightmarish with a sometimes near omnipresent rumble that crescendos with tripping mania at points, heightening Hester’s delicate state of mind. Guy Hoare’s lighting does great to bring in the dim of the gloomy setting without eclipsing its inhabitants, creating some stunning visuals with shadows throughout. Then there’s fantastic little details like the curtains swaying in a breeze coming through open windows which add an almost film noir decadence that’s truly sumptuous.

In short, it’s a production that is betrayed by its unnecessary excess. Perhaps the smaller, tighter, Dorfman theatre would have been a better stage to really ramp-up Rattigan’s blows to the gut and to the soul, as Cracknell demonstrates that they certainly can deliver if things are a bit more focused and condensed.

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A little death. Helen McCrory (centre) as Hester Collyer in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Hubert Smith.

Cast

The casting is certainly an utter pull for The Deep Blue Sea. Helen McCrory, being a well-known name, delivers a blistering justification of her status quo. Although she starts a bit oddly steely, she suddenly erupts into an composed maelstrom of crazy. There are little quivers in her stiff-upper-lip veneer that Hester tries so hard to maintain that are intense and unpredictable. When Hester does break down, McCrory’s performance is masterfully devastating. There’s an unimaginable pain that is exuded here through nuance and presence rather than melodrama, and its almost too much to cope with without gasping.

Tom Burke as Freddie Page gives a similarly credible and feverous performance. Although emanating more fractious passion, you always feel a deeper trouble and despair that ebbs beneath it, wonderfully juxtaposing his otherwise cocksure bravura. The chemistry Burke has with McCrory is fiery yet with a frightening instability that you simply can’t turn away from.

Verdict

There is so much good in this production The Deep Blue Sea, especially its central performances, that makes it a really hot ticket. It’s just a shame its not as concentrated and intimate as it could be to be a perfect cataclysm.

The Deep Blue Sea plays at the National Theatre, London, SE1 9PX, until 21 September 2016. Tickets are £15 – £65. To book, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
This review was made possible by Theatre Bloggers. For more information about the group, please visit theatrebloggers.co.uk.

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