The Deep Blue Sea
A Theatre Royal Bath Production
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, and touring
The revival in reputation of the playwright Terence Rattigan is testament to the truth of Auden's observation that while a book may be unfairly forgotten, none is unjustly remembered. The arrival of the Angry Young Men in the 1950s apparently called time on the career of Rattigan and relegated his work to the status of historical curiosity.
But the third production in six years of The Deep Blue Sea is evidence of the upsurge in the fortunes of a master craftsman whose best work still clearly has the power to amuse, move and speak to audiences.
In his recently released history of British theatre since the war, State of the Nation, Guardian critic Michael Billington makes the case for the recognition of Rattigan as a serious writer whose work has been unfairly conflated with the antiseptic "Loamshire" drawing-room comedies derided by the critic Kenneth Tynan. In fact Rattigan, as The Deep Blue Sea demonstrates, is a hard-nosed writer who handles material of real weight.
The play arose out of the suicide of Rattigan's former lover, although by the time of the final draft of the work, some years later, all vestiges, or nearly all, of the origins of the play, have been removed. The body found slumped on the floor in a gas-filled flat at the start of the evening is that of a woman, rather than a man.
What follows is in many ways very traditional. The play runs for the standard three acts, (as did Look Back in Anger). It includes some conventional stock types to be found in lesser plays of the time - e.g. a High Court Judge - and the language often shows its age. But for all this and indeed because of this as Richard Eyre writes, "What distinguishes The Deep Blue Sea from other great plays of the period is its art of artifice" what ensues is compelling. Eyre rated it Rattigan's best work, one which "most fully expresses the battle between the disorder of the senses and the order of what's allowed". Hester Collyer, who is found unconscious at the start, has placed herself outside respectable society by leaving her husband, Sir William, the judge, for the feckless Freddie Page, an ex-RAF pilot. Although Hester was originally a man, Rattigan explores the plight of his "heroine" with genuine empathy and insight.
"The physical side of things is really awfully unimportant," Philip, a fellow lodger, tells Hester, a view we assumed is shared by her husband. Even Freddie who does offer her physical love cannot offer any deeper communion.
But as well as exploring the destructive power of passion, the play also sets out a portrait of Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War, a time of "boarding houses and young professionals, war heroes living on the glories of the past and unable to find their niche in the world they helped save. The society it depicts is still straitened by circumstance and stiff with prejudice."
Edward Hall's production is commendable with strong performances by Greta Scacchi as Hester, Douglas Lockhart as Freddie, Simon Williams as Sir William and Tim McMullan as Mr Miller. The set, by Frances O'Connor, effectively evokes a time of dearth and drabness. The production would benefit, however, by delving a little deeper to find a greater sense of urgency, of passions held back behind all those stiff upper lips.
Reviewer: Pete Wood