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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville Theatre


  Scene from The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Rattigan's 1952 play is sapped of what can make it a truly scorching experience in Edward Hall's clunky staging of a benchmark text that on this occasion has the audience more often than not laughing at the characters rather than feeling for them. Admittedly, it's not easy in 2008 to animate a period piece in which characters at their most excitable exclaim gosh or refer to Chiswick, west London, as if it were some remote exotic clime. But the late Karel Reisz proved 15 years ago in his Almeida Theatre reclamation that in the right hands, Rattigan's thinly veiled portrait of autobiographical despair can resonate anew, and Reisz's star, Penelope Wilton , found an intuitive way to pitch the anguish afresh. This time around, onetime screen siren Greta Scacchi works hard, winding her face into facial contortions that as often as not put me in mind of Joan Crawford at her more melodramatic. But Scacchi rarely takes you inside the bruised and battered erotic conscience of the suicidal Hester Collyer, who when first seen is trying to gas herself, caught as she is between the devil and - you guessed it - the deep blue sea.

Hester's sexual anguish is determinedly heterosexual, in contrast with those of her esteemed playwright: Married to a high-court judge (played by Simon Williams, exuding male prissiness of a certain privileged English class), she pines instead for the feckless Freddie, a onetime RAF golden boy who is having difficulty acknowledging that his glory days are now gone. That role is here taken by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, a veteran of Hall's ever-adventurous, all-male Propeller Theatre Company who with his broad frame and square jaw thoroughly inhabits the part physically without eliciting much sympathy from lines like, My god, aren't women the end? In the Reisz production, I fondly remember the period trappings lifting a compassionate veil on a tricky time in the English psyche - an era still in thrall to the stiff upper lip when weakness was less something to be pitied than merely a subject for gossip or speculation. It's no surprise to that end that Hester's landlady, Mrs. Elton (Jacqueline Tong), seems to care less for her tenant's actual well-being than for the fear that, heaven forfend, Hester's actions might actually bring in the police. The dubious nature of solicitude is compounded by the presence of an upstairs neighbor in Tim McMullan's indeterminately accented Mr. Miller who is bluntly spoken but of puzzling provenance: as Hester notes wryly late in act one, he looks too much [the] blackmailer to be one.

Rattigan based the play on his own sorrowful liaison with a young actor, Ken Morgan, who took his life in March 1951, a year before The Deep Blue Sea had its West End debut. And you can feel to moving effect Rattigan wanting to blast open the conventions, both psychological and theatrical, of which he was both participant and also a victim: My sort never gets a hearing, says Freddie, who could be speaking for a playwright keen to give rounded, compassionate voice to all too ready dramatic archetypes. It's a shame, then, that the acting on this occasion more often than not reduces the characters to type, as if a pinched accent and clipped voice truly were all. I admire Scacchi's desire to show us something beyond the shimmering beauty that she last displayed at the Vaudeville Theatre two decades ago when she played Yelena in the Jonathan Pryce/Michael Gambon Uncle Vanya, and the actress does well by the mocking intelligence that informs a woman who is dismissive of the love depicted in Trollope and Austen when her own passions have been accompanied by infinitely more pain. But for the play to register properly, any Deep Blue Sea must take a cue from its le


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