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Richmond Theatre remains one of the most charming theatres within reach of central London, and continues to host richly varied and occasionally great touring productions. The majority this season happen to have been revivals, giving us the chance to re-evaluate some of the most popular plays of the last century, not as museum pieces but as the revelations of psychological and social truth that classically great writing and acting should be. It is exciting to see new life breathed into the 50-year-old plays of Coward and Rattigan. It’s salutary rather than nostalgic to be reminded of the vitality and wisdom of past generations of writers. There is a sad dramatic irony in the full circle that Rattigan’s reputation has undergone — sad because though his last play, Cause Célèbre, was produced in the West End in 1977, he never lived to enjoy the full rehabilitation of his work, which was affirmed in 1992 by Karel Reisz’s production of The Deep Blue Sea. Instead of scorning the formality of his narrative and construction, as was the fashion in the Sixties, we appreciate the emotional heroism of his characters.
The story of Hester Collyer’s self-destructive love for an unworthy man for whom she has left her husband, and of her redemption, emerges triumphantly in Thea Sharrock’s production. Harriet Walter gives the most unaffected performance of her career that I have seen: her Hester is dignified, gracious, self-knowing and ironic, an obviously intelligent woman driven to self-loathing and despair through the intensity of her obsessive passion, a rational being struggling in ‘a great tidal wave of illogical emotions’. Robert Portal is stunningly effective as her feckless, selfish and unimaginative lover Freddie Page. Physically and vocally he is totally authentic as the swaggering former fighter pilot, who’s never adjusted to civilian life following the war, and crucially for the play, he makes Freddie sexually attractive and appealing despite all the appalling flaws of his character. If we couldn’t sympathise with Hester’s infatuation, the play would fall apart. He plays him unsentimentally, in all his drunken boorishness, but with a humble sense of his own emotional limitations. He realises he isn’t capable of loving as deeply as she does. Freddie can’t comprehend that he could be the catalyst for feelings as consuming as Hester’s. Freddie as a type is still breaking hearts today but Robert Portal meticulously roots him in a specific time and class. Harriet Walter is likewise totally credible as the clergyman’s daughter married to a judge. She may not have the transparent vulnerability that made Peggy Ashcroft feel that she had no clothes on when playing the part but it is still an exquisitely judged and sensitive performance, which never strikes a false note.
Rattigan’s tolerance for human nature is on a huge scale. As well as showing the dramatic agonies of Hester’s obsessive love and the despair that makes her ‘ashamed to be alive’, he painstakingly delineates the sympathetic qualities of all the conventional characters, noting but not condemning the voyeuristic glee with which young Welch witnesses Hester’s desperation, showing how a pillar of the Establishment and icon of respectability like Sir William can still be a fountain of compassion and generosity (but then Rattigan has a weakness for the noble lawyer, dating from Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy). Neil Stacy perhaps over-does the pomposity and tends to intone in episcopal fashion as Sir William, but it is nonetheless a sympathetic portrayal, and he is genuinely touching in his steadfast love for his wife. Through him, we get to see the less self-preoccupied side of Hester. He obviously respects her intelligence. Rattigan makes Hester note that it is not her husband’s fault that he does not have the capacity to love her the way she wants to be loved. She’s never criticised for being unrealistic in her demands but she needs Miller as a mentor to show her a more independent way of living with her integrity intact.
Rattigan is kind to all his characters. He makes sure we see the sensitive side of Freddie’s hearty RAF chum (Laurence Kennedy) who squirms in sympathetic embarrassment at Hester’s anguish, and the kindly compassion of Mrs Elton. His most manifest theme is tolerance of love in any of its forms and of the often irrational actions that great passion generates. Though Hester is not successful in her attempt to kill herself, a large part of the play is a sympathetic study of suicide, mainly concentrated in the analysis contained in the dialogue between Hester and Miller.
The big emotional scenes between Hester and the three men who influence the course of her life, her lover, her husband and her quasi-analyst figure, Mr Miller, all work effectively; the scene in which she abases herself in front of Welch (Sam Talbot), giving him more than he bargained for when he asked for a light to be shed on human nature, is excruciatingly poignant. The production’s credibility does not falter in the scenes with Roger Lloyd Pack’s mysterious but pragmatic Miller. We accept that his own experiences have equipped him to understand Hester’s feelings and to see through Freddie.
There are minor flaws. The play’s notoriously well made construction fails only once to stand up to the test of time — in the tedious opening exposition — and Sharrock hasn’t disguised its awkwardness. The Welchs and Mrs Elton start the play as if they’re in The Mousetrap. There’s a feeling of bad old rep, abetted by a badly fitting door, before the main characters can establish the true tone of the play and carry us with them to great dramatic heights. The set, revealing not just the Pages’ flat but also the staircase of the whole house of let apartments containing other lives, and of the world beyond that waits for Hester, is not well enough built to support the ambitious design. We wait too long for the flat to fly, and the sound effects to die. Sharrock interprets the metaphor of the deep blue sea a bit literally. It seems superfluous to add the sea image and mood music to a play in which the main protagonist is fully able to articulate their feelings and is firmly set in an environment of social realism. Writer and actress do not need help taking us with them over the great tidal wave.
C J Sheridan © September 2003
Originally published on R&V 25-09-03
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