Helen McCrory has a magnificent way with a cigarette. She wields it with such poise and eloquence. She uses it both as a shield and a prop.
Terence Rattigan’s play of 1952, The Deep Blue Sea, has lost none of its power to eviscerate. The man was a craftsman and this is one of his greatest works, with one of the most complicated, flawed and fascinating of female roles at its centre – a role to which McCrory more than does justice.
Hester has ditched her life of married respectability with her high court judge husband, William, to hook up with Freddie, a dashing and somewhat younger one-time test pilot with a burgeoning drink problem. The play, famously, opens with Hester collapsed on the floor of her shabby Ladbroke Grove flat. Her attempt at suicide has failed because she forgot to put a shilling in the gas meter. Hester sees that Freddie does not and cannot love her in the way she loves him and the knowledge of this is breaking her.
Rattigan’s play is great because it allows everyone in it room to be human. Freddie is not just a cad. Like the protagonist of Rattigan’s earlier Flare Path, he lost his nerve in the war and is still living with that. Tom Burke has a charismatic swagger in the role and he brings an easy naturalism to the clipped, chipper dialogue, but there’s also something supremely sad about him.
Peter Sullivan’s William interactions with Hester contain genuine affection and warmth along with a mixture of respect and regret – it’s delicately done and stronger for it. Nick Fletcher gives a performance of similar restraint as Mr Miller, the former doctor, struck off for murky reasons, who has his own understanding of Hester’s emotional turmoil.
Carrie Cracknell – who previously directed McCrory in Medea for the National – makes the most of the Lyttelton Theatre’s width and height. Designer Tom Scutt has created a two-storey rooming house on the stage, the walls of which are translucent, conveying a real sense of lives lived on top of one another, a background London hum. It’s the details that really make it: the gas meter on the wall, the wind blowing through the curtains. But the production itself feels rather uncertain at times. There are moments of ghosting, figures glimpsed through doors to the haunting strains of The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes for You. In these moments it feels like Cracknell is attempting something more conceptual, but they never really build up to anything.
It’s a play and a production of facades, cool and blue and smoke-wreathed, which makes it all the more wrenching and desperate when McCrory’s Hester breaks, when she crumbles to the floor, when she abandons all her measured calm and begs Freddie not to leave her, even though both she and he know that he will and he must.