Peggy Ashcroft, Vivien Leigh, Penelope Keith, Penelope Wilton, Harriet Walter, Greta Scaachi, Rachel Weisz... quite a line-up eh? Now Helen McCrory can be added to that list as she is the latest actress to play the desperate Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan's masterpiece THE DEEP BLUE SEA which is now revived by Carrie Cracknell at the Lyttelton.
What makes this play Rattigan's masterpiece? I think because this play more than any other seemed to spring directly from a moment in his life. Rattigan, a closeted homosexual, had been in a relationship with a young actor Kenneth Morgan in the 1940s who decided to end the relationship, frustrated by his life in the shadows of Rattigan's world. After a subsequent relationship failed, a distraught Morgan gassed himself.
Three years later and after much revising, THE DEEP BLUE SEA opened in the West End with Peggy Ashcroft as Hester, Kenneth More as her lover Freddie Page and Roland Culver as her estranged husband Sir William Collyer. Watching the play again, it is remarkable how Rattigan - despite his relationship with Morgan - manages to balance out empathy among these characters and not make it all stacked up in Hester's corner.
West London, 1950s: Hester Collyer is found by her neighbours and landlady lying in front of her living-room gas fire, saved by the fact that the gas meter ran out of money. Another neighbour who has vague medical experience deals with her ingestion of sleeping pills but what drove her to this, at the time, criminal act of Attempted Suicide? Over the course of the day we discover that Hester has been driven to despair by the knowledge that her lover Freddie is falling out of love with her.
Hester left a safe, middle-class life as the wife of High Court judge Sir William Collyer soon after meeting the dashing, young WWII test pilot Freddie Page. Freddie gave Hester the sexual fulfillment she never had with Sir William but, with work becoming increasingly hard due to his drinking, Freddie is tiring of Hester's emotional needs and when he decides to stay at a golfing event rather than return to celebrate her birthday Hester decides to choose "The Deep Blue Sea".
When Freddie returns Hester tries to cover up her actions but when he discovers her suicide note he responds angrily that he can no longer live like this and leaves. An increasingly desperate Hester discovers he has been given a job offer in South America and attempts to manoeuvre him to return so she can win him back.
Instead she is visited twice by Sir William who, against all odds, offers her the possibility of returning to their married life together but Hester has grown emotionally away from him and ultimately it's Miller, the secretive neighbour with a medical past who provides Hester with a suggestion of renewal.
Carrie Cracknell's stays clear of any revisionist tricks - although the production has a superfluous 'auralscape' which groans and rumbles away as if Hester's West London boarding house will collapse at any minute, it's such a redundant addition. Other than that production stumble, Cracknell does well in suggesting the quiet desperation in the lives of all the tenants in Mrs Elton's boarding house, not just Hester and Miller but also in the Welchs, a young married couple who are already showing hairline fractures in their life together.
Tom Scutt's boarding-house set has translucent walls which allow you to see the neighbour's comings and goings and shut-in lives which certainly suggests the secrets that Hester is faced with keeping - her unmarried life with Freddie and the hushed-up suicide attempt. It's problem is that Hester and Freddie's flat is hardly the dingy one that Rattigan envisioned Hester trapped in alone.
At times I felt the production was a bit under-powered in it's male casting. In the important role of Freddie Tom Burke could certainly do the "surly teenager" behaviour of Hester's lover but I didn't believe for a minute that this man would inspire grand passion in anyone, no matter how good he was in bed.
I also felt Nick Fletcher was too lightweight for the shadowy Mr Miler. It is slowly revealed that Miller has served time in prison which has resulted in him losing the right to practise medicine and his brusque exterior hides someone who feels just as ostracized as Hester and it is he who plants the vital thought of how she can get through her pain. It's a great part but here Fletcher seemed to just shine it on.
Much better was Peter Sullivan as Hester's estranged husband Sir William, played younger here than usual. Collyer is not a bad man, he just cannot give Hester what she now has experienced with Freddie and despite his suggesting that the door is still open for her at the family home, he knows that his safe and mundane life will go on without her and Sullivan captured this perfectly.
There is nice support too from Marion Bailey as the genial landlady Mrs Elton and Yolanda Kettle as the newly-married neighbour Ann, a potential Hester-like wife who pines for her frequently absent husband.
But of course any production of THE DEEP BLUE SEA needs an actress at the top of her game and Helen McCrory gives a performance of nerve-shredding anxiety. Over the course of the play's single day setting we see Hester defeated, cowed, cunning, loving, distraught but finally... herself. On paper she can seem a silly, over-emotional woman so you need an actress who is willing to go all the way off the scale to make her situation real and McCrory does just that. Even though I know the play she still had me wondering how she could come back from the edge of disaster.
It's a talk with Mr Miller who starts the rebirth of Hester followed by a resigned last meeting with Freddie and Helen McCrory was sensational in this last beautifully-written section of the play, as the parting lovers skirt over the undertow of pain in their parting with niceties and attempts to be 'decent' about things. In the silent last moments of the play, McCrory was magnetic... who else could make cooking a scrambled egg so absorbing? Again, magnificent McCrory makes a role all her own.