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Danny and the Deep Blue Sea

John Patrick Shanley
Play With Fire
Hope Aria House, Manchester
to

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is a glorious exercise in misdirection, opening with an outburst of rage and establishing a pair of characters so extreme it is hard to see any positive features before moving in an altogether different direction.

In a shabby bar in the Bronx, Danny (Danny Solomon) meets Roberta (Hannah Ellis Ryan). Both carry heavy emotional baggage. Roberta is crippled by guilt for an act she considers obscene and which has divided her family. Danny is basically a caveman, prone to irrational outbursts of anger, so pointlessly argumentative he picks a fight with a drunk who has passed out. Although both characters have constructed emotional barriers to deter others from making contact, they are drawn, against their instincts, into an unlikely relationship.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is very much a study of two people whose self-esteem is so low they feel they do not deserve any respite. Inarticulate but lonely, they are stumbling towards companionship. Director Daniel Bradford tips his hand early as to the deceptive nature of the play. The background music is by Tom Waits and Nick Cave whose world-weary ballads set a bleakly romantic, rather than a confrontational, mood.

John Patrick Shanley’s script is full of contradictions and disquieting moments. Danny’s ‘hard man’ attitude is so extreme as to seem like a bluff—Roberta teases he is as scary as Halloween. As a result, the sudden burst of actual physical violence towards Roberta is terrifying. In a bizarre twist, Danny’s violent primal instincts actually nudge Roberta towards redemption—although his actions may not be palatable to a contemporary audience.

It is always a thrill to see a pair of actors at the peak of their powers going head-to-head. Danny ought to be a brutal terrifying creature—he admits to thinking he has killed someone in a fight. Although the opening scene is pure incoherent rage, Danny Solomon’s confused and conflicted performance raises doubts as to how much this is bluster. There is an odd childlike innocence underlying Solomon’s performance suggesting Danny’s violent tendencies may simply be due to him never being taught any alternatives.

Hannah Ellis Ryan gives Roberta a self-hating attitude of someone desperate to be punished for an action she considers unforgivable. After her initial angry outburst at Danny, she becomes flirty and manipulative. Throughout, however, Ellis Ryan shows a sense of decency buried under the harsh exterior. Having got Danny where she wants him, Roberta feels guilty enough to offer him a way out. In a play full of strong moments, the sequence of Ellis Ryan hiding Roberta’s self-sacrifice behind a hard-bitten and abusive exterior is a stand-out. Physically, Danny Solomon towers over Hannah Ellis Ryan but there is no doubt Roberta is the dominant partner in the relationship.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea confounds expectations and becomes a life-enhancing experience. A pair of stunning performances makes it possible to believe that a couple who, on first impression seem the lowest of the low, deserve a chance of redemption.

Reviewer: David Cunningham