“What else is there after hope?”
In the never-ending quest to variously improve my theatrical knowledge, experience and horizons (plus to see one of my favourite actors), the next week sees me making three trips out of London, the first of which was to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds to see Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. It is the centenary year of Rattigan’s birth and so productions of his work are popping up all over the country and through the West End too as his work is seriously reassessed. The Deep Blue Sea has long been considered one of his finest plays though and so we took the opportunity to travel north and make a first visit to this theatre, the size of which (in the Quarry at least) took me most by surprise.
Ruari Murchison’s design was most impressive, perhaps a little perversely so given the post-war austerity it was meant to be evoking, but a necessity in filling the wide expanse in the Quarry auditorium. I wasn’t too sure that the picture frame on which the apartment was set was needed but the rooms themselves were convincingly mounted with dark gauze filling in for walls, sometimes impermeable, sometimes allowing us a peek into the rooms at the rear of the bedsit or best of all, into the working stairwell which led both up and down, calling to mind Bunny Christie’s design for the National Theatre’s Men Should Weep, but at a fraction of the budget I should imagine.
But to the play: written in 1952 and considered one of Rattigan’s greatest works. Respectable vicar’s daughter Hester has abandoned her dull but dependable husband, high court judge William for what she sees as one last chance at happiness with ex-fighter pilot Freddie, a dashing but emotionally unavailable drinker who tragically, can’t love her back the way she loves him. A passionate woman with an artistic flair she longs to nourish, she sees no escape from an unforgiving society which had promised so much for women during wartime and the emotional stiltedness of so many of the men around her and so the play opens with Hester having tried to take her own life.
Maxine Peake as Hester conveyed the brittle fragility of a despairing woman perfectly, her grim resolve never more evident than in the slight flinching and limp arms as William embraces her in the hope of a final reconciliation, John Ramm’s William was also very good here, but there was something a bit too reserved about the whole production, not enough suggestion of the troubled waters beneath the still surface. As emotional restraint was the name of the game, it was perhaps inevitable that there wasn’t really enough chemistry evident between Hester and Freddie, Lex Shrapnel also favouring a relatively understated performance, but it did feel like this was an area where the production needed to be more convincing at showing the depth of emotion underneath the stiff upper lips.
Events were enlivened by Sam Cox’s slightly incongruous performance as Mr Miller as the mysterious doctor from upstairs whose own revelations help Hester on her own journey to a greater understanding of herself. His physical performance amused me as it felt like he hadn’t necessarily quite shrugged off all of the animal mannerisms he adopted for the Young Vic’s Christmas show My Dad’s A Birdman in which he was brilliant but he provided that sense of the ‘other’, the hint of a different emotional palette that might work for Hester to help her move on from the frustrations and disappointments of her life thus far. The supporting players did well too: Ross Armstrong and Eleanor Wyld as the rubber-necking neighbours, Ann Penfold’s gossipy but warm-hearted landlady and John Hollingworth’s starched chum of Freddie all providing colour to the social context but their real impact on the play felt a little limited to me.
With the shadows of both how well-perceived this play is and the near-theatrical-perfection that was After the Dance last year, there was a sense of good rather than great about this production, a 3.5/5 if I did ratings, but it was still a worthy reason to make a first trip to this theatre and a nice introduction to this play (I was expecting a totally different ending!) I’m not currently booked to go and see The Deep Blue Sea in Chichester, but if they cast slightly older with Hester and enter potential-Dames-to-be territory then I bet I won’t be able to resist and end up going over there for the first time. Last but by no means least, I have to commend the front of house team for being one of the friendliest and most helpful I have ever experienced in a theatre, I wish I had taken note of the name of the lady who served us as she was a delight.