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Did you know that Terence Rattigan originally wanted Margaret Leighton or Celia Johnson to play the part of Hester Collyer in the first production of The Deep Blue Sea, a part that eventually went to Peggy Ashcroft? Or that it took three drafts before producer Binkie Beaumont was happy?
Peggy Ashcroft was the preferred choice of director Frith Banbury but she initially turned it down. According to Rattigan’s biographer, Michael Darlow, she found the character selfish and unsympathetic and believed that if she couldn’t sympathize with Hester, nor would the audience, making the play unworkable.
Binkie Beaumont’s exhortations eventually won her over and Ashcroft accepted, although she later remarked she felt as if she were “walking around the stage naked”, so emotionally explicit is the part.
When the curtain rises on The Deep Blue Sea, Hester is discovered collapsed on the floor after a suicide bid. As the play develops, we learn that she had previously left her husband, a High Court Judge, for a passionate affair with a younger man, once a Battle of Britain pilot, now a rather dissolute character with a drink problem, who arrives back at their flat after a weekend of golf, having forgotten her birthday.
Roland Culver was cast as the husband and suggested the young Kenneth More for the part of Hester’s lover, Freddie Page. More’s audition was hampered by nerves, reveals Darlow, and by not having read the script. But at a second interview, held chez Rattigan and eased by the playwright’s offer of a drink, the actor – later famous for playing another pilot, Douglas Bader, in the film Reach for the Sky – secured the part.
Rattigan’s inspiration for The Deep Blue Sea had come from the shocking suicide of a former lover, actor Kenneth Morgan, whom he had first met when Morgan was engaged to play Babe Luke in the screen version of French Without Tears. At the time of his suicide, Morgan had already left Rattigan – suddenly – and was pursuing an affair with another actor, Alec Ross, a heterosexual, who became Sheila Hancock’s first husband, dying of cancer in 1971. Morgan’s feelings of suffocation in Rattigan’s company were replaced by rejection, writes Darlow, since Ross, though he enjoyed Morgan’s company immensely, could not give Morgan the kind of relationship he wanted.
The Deep Blue Sea had an out-of-town try-out at Brighton in February 1952 and transferred to the West End the following month where it was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. Anatole Litvak directed the film adaptation, released in 1955, which starred a very different but equally compelling actress, Vivien Leigh, More reprising his stage role, and Emlyn Williams as Sir William Collyer.
Sarah Vernon © 2006
Originally published on R&V 02-11-06
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