The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of The Deep Blue Sea is a good example of why Terence Rattigan’s work deserves its current revival, but it also highlights why the playwright fell out of favour for so long. Quintessentially English, it is emotional, drawn-out and just a touch overwrought. Set in London in 1952, it brims with long-suppressed middle-class angst and cries of ‘Oh, Freddie!’.
The story tells of the last day in the relationship between Hester Collyer and former RAF pilot, Freddie Page, for whom she left her husband, a well-respected judge. Starting with a powerful and defining event, the fragile threads of their relationship are pulled until it falls apart over the course of the play’s 150-minute running time (including a 20-minute interval). While the play is predominately about love and human nature, it also touches on life after the war, as Freddie struggles to make sense of a world in which he is no longer a celebrated war hero.
What holds the play together is an excellent ensemble cast, anchored by Maxine Peake as Hester Collyer, who manages to convey her character’s conflicting emotions believably and whole-heartedly. She is well supported, particularly by Sam Cox as the mysterious ‘Dr’ Miller and Ann Penfold as the well-meaning landlady, Mrs Elton. As Freddie, Lex Shrapnel manages to capture the fragile cockiness of a man in search of an identity, unable to truly understand the feelings of the woman who gave up so much to be with him. However, the success of the play hinges on the audience’s empathy with Hester and, amid all the hand-wringing, it was occasionally hard to resist the urge to climb on stage, slap her round the face and tell her to pull herself together.
Sarah Esdaile, returning to the Playhouse after the success of Death of a Salesman, once again manages to get the best out of the material and her cast. The technical aspects are also spot-on, from Simon Slater’s jazzy music to Ruari Murchison’s wonderful design that uses the available space to full effect to create Hester and Freddie’s flat.
Overall, there is no doubt that The Deep Blue Sea is a solid piece of work. But while the emotions on display are undoubtedly timeless, their presentation does feel dated. This is a play of another era, by playwright who deserves to be remembered for shining a light on an England that, for many, has long been forgotten.