The Deep Blue Sea
'Dated' was the unfortunate adjective used to describe several revivals of Terence Rattigan's deeply personal play 'The Deep Blue Sea' in the 1980s. First performed in 1952, it was initially well received but has had a chequered history. It is now rightly recognised as a modern classic, a timeless study of love, sexual desire and social repression. And, in the hands of the right director, compelling theatre.
There's nothing dated about the latest production of this emotionally complex masterpiece at Sutton Arts Theatre, directed by Faye Hatch. The cast, led by Jayne Lunn's sympathetic Hester, rise to the considerable challenge of avoiding melodrama to deliver a night of raw, thrilling and ultimately uplifting theatre.
We start with a suicide. An attempted suicide. Hester explains to the landlady of her run-down London flat: "When you're between any kind of devil and the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea sometimes looks very inviting. It did last night." The circumstances leading up to the failed suicide bid slowly become clearer as we learn that Hester has left her barrister husband, Sir William Collyer, to live with Freddie Page, an alcoholic WWII fighter pilot. The consequences of her passionate love affair and marital breakdown play out over the course of a single day.
We feel an immediately sympathetic connection with Jayne Lunn's broken Hester. It's a role which requires a huge emotional range and Lunn delivers. Scenes with Sutton Arts newcomer Christopher Scott, playing husband Collyer with poise and impressive control, are emotionally charged and full of unspoken pain. Completing the love triangle, Christopher Commander brings a perfect balance of self-pity, arrogance and almost childlike innocence to the role of Hester's lover Freddie Page.
Valerie Tomlinson punctures the tension with some masterly moments of comic timing as the tolerant and maternal landlady Mrs Elton. Struck-off doctor and flat tenant Mr Miller is played with dishevelled and disarming charm by Andrew Tomlinson in a performance which hints nicely at the mystery surrounding his shame.
Tom Cooper and Katie Johnson combine convincing panic and concern with more sober moments of judgement and condescension as Philip and Ann Welch, the young married neighbours who discover Hester unconscious in front of the gas fire at the start of the play. Jackie Jackson, friend and fellow RAF pilot to Freddie, is played with spirited earnestness and sincerity by Richard Millward.
Whether a play remains 'relevant' to modern audiences borders on critical cliche. Do dead playwrights have to speak to contemporary problems to deserve revivals of their work? Whatever your view, what is clear is that Rattigan knew the torment and pain of the outsider. You don't have to be an authorial intent junkie to recognise the strong autobiographical threads woven into his work. Is Rattigan Hester and his lover Kenneth Morgan Freddie? Perhaps it's a moot point. Homosexual references simmer under the surface of the text and illuminate what it was, and still is, to be judged for who you love. To dare to embrace your passions. To be torn between the devil and the deep blue sea.
We may have moved on from post-WWII social attitudes to women, sexual desire and fidelity but has so much really changed? Depressingly, women who leave their husbands or partners to pursue affairs are subjected to similar abuse and judgement as they were back then. It's just not the same for men. We have a whole bank of vile insults on hand to label the straying female. The male equivalents carry generally positive connotations.
In the right hands, ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ still holds a mirror up to society in 2022 as much as it did in 1952, challenging the audience to reflect on sexist attitudes and the complex interplay between love, passion, commitment and social expectations. Sutton Arts Theatre’s latest play, two years in the making and finally here, is clearly in the right hands. A compelling production of a compelling play. Buy a ticket.
‘The Deep Blue Sea’ is playing at Sutton Arts Theatre from 24th February to 5th March 2022.