The Theatreguide.London Review
The Deep Blue Sea
Vaudeville Theatre Spring-Summer 2008
An all-too-rare revival of a play by Terrence Rattigan reminds us of what a master and an unjustly underrated playwright he is.
When John Osborne and his contemporaries shook up the British theatre a half-century ago, Rattigan became the whipping boy of the new wave, the detested symbol of what was seen as the safe middle-class drama of the preceding generation, and the restoration of his reputation has been a long slow process.
Far from being complacently middle class, Rattigan's subject was always the strangling limitations of stiff-upper-lip Britishness, that left people without the tools to cope with real emotions when they experienced them.
In The Deep Blue Sea Rattigan starts with a melodramatic cliché, the tragedy of an older woman who deserts her husband out of passion for a younger man.
But, although the play opens with her suicide attempt when, inevitably, he doesn't love her as much as she loves him, Rattigan goes on to show us how much more complex the story is than that.
The boy, for example, is no cad. He's a war hero and he is an amiable sort and he does love the woman in his way. He is just not equipped for grand passion, and he even has the grace to regret being unable to return her intensity of feeling.
The woman is not ridiculous, nor is she really tragic. Though the play opens with a cliché, the way it ends may surprise you as much as it does her.
And the husband she left is also a complex figure, enough of a gentlemen to come to her aid when she's at her worst, surprisingly willing to stretch himself beyond the expected behaviour of his culture, and yet ultimately hitting a wall past which he can't think or feel.
Nothing is solved, no revolutionary breaks (or revolutionary condemnations like Jimmy Porter's) are made with convention. But the limitations of convention - the failures of middle class culture and morality to cope with real human experience - are exposed as brutally as Osborne ever did.
The play thus deals in subtleties, in the brief glimpses of truths the characters can't express any more openly, and director Edward Hall guides his three central actors to correspondingly subtle and moving performances.
(The supporting roles, generally written as stereotypes, are generally played as such, but are fortunately unimportant and ignorable.)
Greta Scacchi shows us the woman overcome with a passion she doesn't have words for, driven at various moments to ecstatic joy, horrible despair and demeaning begging.
In all of these states she is aware that she isn't being the person she wants to be, but equally aware both that she can't help it and that she doesn't have any better ways of expressing herself.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart can make the lover seem unspeakably cruel one moment, utterly charming the next, then embarrassingly callow, then surprisingly honourable - and keep them all part of the same recognisable, not-unsympathetic flawed human being.
And Simon Williams keeps the cuckold from ever being comic or ridiculous and yet lets us see, just when we're finding him remarkably attractive, that he does have limits his wife has moved far beyond.
Keep your attention on the little things, and you will find this version of what seems at first like an old story surprisingly moving.
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