Terence Rattigan's modern classic The Deep Blue Sea transferred this week to the West End for a limited summer season at the Vaudeville Theatre, where it opened on Tuesday (13 May 2008, previews from 29 April) following a regional tour (See 1st Night Photos, 14 May 2008). Greta Scacchi takes on the lead role of Hester Collyer, who’s overcome by obsessive love.
Foundering in the closing stages of a hopeless affair, Hester, the daughter of a clergyman and wife of a judge, has abandoned her steady husband and life of affluence for a blind passion. But Freddie Page, a handsome but thoughtless ex-RAF fighter pilot, is out of his depth in their relationship, overwhelmed by the strength of a feeling he’s incapable of reciprocating.
Written in 1952 after the success of The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy, The Deep Blue Sea is based on Rattigan's turbulent relationship with a young actor who left him for another lover and subsequently committed suicide. This Theatre Royal Bath production is directed by Edward Hall and designed by Francis O'Connor, with lighting by Peter Mumford and sound by Matt McKenzie.
Scacchi is joined in the The Deep Blue Sea by Simon Williams as her husband, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as her young lover Freddie Page and Tim McMullan as a Polish doctor who lives upstairs. Also in the cast are Jacqueline Tong, Geoff Bretton, Rebecca O’Mara and Jack Tarlton.
Hall’s production of The Deep Blue Seadivided critics. While some applauded a “fine revival”, others felt it was “disappointingly uneven” and “limp”. Scacchi also fell prey to conflicting opinions with several critics worrying that her “oddly erratic performance” simply “goes elegantly through the motions of emotion” and feels forced. The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer stood out as a big fan of both the production and Scacchi, who he declared “shatteringly fine” as the love-torn Hester Collyer. Despite its age, the “historic” play itself continues to impress with critics agreeing that it “still strikes notes of radical daring” and is possibly “one of the greatest plays of the 20th century”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “Greta Scacchi … has redefined her acting profile for good. She remains a strikingly beautiful stage presence, but her voice is tinny and her emotional power somewhat forced. Don’t get me wrong. She’s good. And Hall’s production is fast and furious on an atmospherically dingy boarding house designed by Francis O'Connor, lit by Peter Mumford; it has to be, really, as the first two acts are played straight through without an interval, a big mistake. The rhythm of Rattigan’s expert structure needs the two intervals … Ivor Brown once said Collyer needed a good slap and a chat with a marriage counsellor. But Rattigan suggests she will survive through her painting and an assumption of a sort of baffled dignity. I don’t believe this in Scacchi’s performance, or not as much as I did with Penelope Wilton 15 years ago, or indeed with Harriet Walter on tour more recently. Scacchi does convey a hectic dismay once Freddie, whom Dugald Bruce-Lockhart plays with a shocking selfishness and self-pity, has gone. But surely this Hester would return to Simon Williams’ painfully decent and sympathetic judge? There is good work from a slightly miscast Tim McMullan as the furtive Polish doctor with his own unexpressed history of misfortune, and Jacqueline Tong as the flustered landlady, who gets the play off to a flying start in that extraordinary, information-packed opening scene."
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The Deep Blue Sea (1952) remains one of the greatest plays of the 20th century … Rattigan captures English reserve, snobbery, and generosity of spirit with great sympathy and understanding, while his portrayal of Hester's devastating depth of love and desire for a younger man who is unable to return her passion was daringly frank for its period. Scacchi is shatteringly fine as the desperate, suicidal Hester, catching the agonising mixture of despair and hope in her doomed affair with the former RAF Spitfire ace Freddie Page. There are moments when her emotional abandonment doesn't seem like acting at all, others of fierce erotic desire. Most moving of all is the wistfulness with which she regards her conventional but not unhappy former life. For Hester, the past is another country to which she knows she can never return. Atmospherically designed by Francis O'Connor, Hall's production is blessed with some superb supporting performances, most notably from Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Freddie, who is painfully and movingly aware of his emotional limitations, from Simon Williams as Hester's decent, grief-struck husband, and Tim McMullan as the East European doctor who wisely insists, like Chekhov, that the real courage in life is to go on living even when all hope has gone.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “You could not quite describe Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea as a rallying cry for the sexual liberation of women trapped in joyless marriages. Yet even a production as limp as Edward Hall’s cannot disguise the fact that, 56 years after its premiere, this historic play still strikes notes of radical daring in our own age of supposed sexual equality … The handsome Scacchi, faintly redolent of Mrs Thatcher in her haughty prime, goes elegantly through the motions of emotion. Yet she is little wracked and rent asunder by love. Even her brief show of tears have a crocodile quality. Although supposed to be struggling in The Deep Blue Sea, she remains cresting the shallows while Tim McMullan’s struck-off, gay and middle European doctor encourages her to struggle on. Simon Williams’ judge, the model of stoicism, desiccated reserve and reticence, serves as a perfect period piece. Bruce-Lockhart’s big achievement is to make the egotistical, emotionally retarded Freddie moving, beset with sadness over his inability to love Hester. The Deep Blue Sea, though, depends on Lady Collyer’s serious sexual blues which here are coloured in too pale a shade of bright.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars)– “Hester Collyer, the judge’s wife who has absconded with a former RAF pilot, bungles her suicide, giving us one of the 20th century’s finest survival dramas and the theatre a terrific role for an actress who has both the ‘thoughtful, remote face’ Rattigan wanted and a willingness to own up to humiliating emotion. And that’s a dual test Greta Scacchi passes: sometimes covering up her anguish, sometimes abjectly displaying it, in what even in the post-Diana era remains a very English battle between the stiff upper lip and the tripes below … Has the piece dated? When Simon Williams as Hester’s husband talks of her conjugal duty one might think so, but Rattigan is fair-minded enough to make him wiser, warmer, more forgiving than 1950s convention might dictate. What’s unusual in Edward Hall’s fine revival is Bruce-Lockhart’s playing of Freddie. Though he ends up weeping on the landing that’s half-visible from his and Hester’s room, he’s less the clumsy ex-hero, more the killer who plugged Huns from a Spitfire: tough, callous, and quick to see Hester’s near-suicide as a threat to his reputation rather than a cry for help. For a cry for help it is, and more, much more. To witness Scacchi’s face crumple and her voice become a stricken yelp is to know not only that, but that.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars) - “Edward Hall's revival summons up a strong sense of the drab repressiveness of post-war England, but it is disappointingly uneven … Scacchi delivers an oddly erratic performance. In her attempt to convey the tension between overwrought infatuation and well-bred English propriety, there were moments in the first half when she reminded me of those ‘Armpit Theatre’ sketches on Round the Horne that spoofed stiff-upper-lip passion. Equally, as the production warms up, there are raw, harrowing sequences where she truly convinces you that she is lost in the abyss of destructive love and scalding shame … The humour is treated heavy-handedly, but some supporting performances are rich in insight. Simon Williams makes a touching impression as the heroine's husband, and Tim McMullan beautifully underlines the sardonic wit and humanity of the struck-off Middle European doctor, whose fellow-feeling for Hester illustrates the instinctive sympathy for outsiders that is one of Rattigan's creative strengths.”
- by Kate Jackson