It has long been an open secret that events in Terence Rattigan’s private life bore a resemblance to the plot of what is arguably his greatest play, The Deep Blue Sea, and it is often suggested that the play’s central character, Hester Collyer, would have been male, had the playwright not been constricted by the moral rigours of his era. In this new play, Mike Poulter, tells us that the man would have been Kenny Morgan, a struggling actor in his late 20s who had deserted Rattigan 10 months earlier to live with another struggling actor.19-year-old Alec Lennox.
In Britain of the late 1940s, a woman cast into the role of dutiful wife may well have faced similar predicaments to those of the covert homosexual lover of a famous man, explaining why the original play resonated so strongly with audiences of its day and since. Hester’s “sin” of adultery and Kenny’s forbidden love are not so different, both would have led to social ostracism, but.the latter could also have carried the penalty of imprisonment.
The structure of Poulter’s play is almost a carbon copy of Rattigan’s. It begins with Kenny being found in his gas-filled Camden Town flat, having botched a suicide attempt (itself a criminal offence at that time). As we later discover, the balance of Kenny’s mind is very disturbed. After escaping from being Rattigan’s little secret, tucked away in an attic flat of his luxury home, he finds himself totally besotted with Alec, a serially unfaithful, heavy drinking bisexual, who is absent for one night, auditioning for Birmingham Rep.
Poulter’s attention to period detail is fascinating, often brought out best in subsidiary characters – Marlene Sidaway’s nosy landlady, George Irving’s struck-off doctor and Matthew Bulgo’s kindly neighbour – but at the play’s heart is a superb gut-wrenching performance from Paul Keating as the mentally tortured Kenny. Simon Dutton often seems too much of a cold fish as Rattigan, writer of some of the most emotionally wrought dramas written in the English language, but he occasionally loosens the upper lip to show a man capable of love, even if the spectre of Oscar Wilde hovers over him as he dreads public humiliation and the wrath of his fearsome mother. Poulter writes Alec as remarkably self aware for one so young, making the character not entirely convincing and Pierro Niel-Mee’s performance also suggests a man older than 19. It is difficult to see why his actress girlfriend, Norma (Lowenna Melrose) can be bothered with him.
Almost equalling Keating as stars of Lucy Bailey’s intense and claustrophobic production are the set and costume designs by Robert Innes Hopkins; the seedy apartment is realised beautifully, blending perfectly into the Arcola itself, light filtering in through small windows and the Northern line rumbling below (if there is a West End transfer, it will have to be to the Garrick). Poulter’s play probably derives too much from Rattigan’s to ever be regarded as great, but it builds to an emotional crescendo in the second act that is enough to make it a considerable achievement in its own right. Now, it is on to the National Theatre’s revival of The Deep Blue Sea……..
Performance date: 11 June 2016
Hester Collyer, unable to come to terms with the people in her life or the society in which she lives, stands alongside the likes of Hedda Gabler and Blanche DuBois as one of the great tragic heroines of modern drama This assertion is proved emphatically in Carrie Cracknell’s superbly acted revival of Terence Rattigan;s great play. A woman approaching middle age who has defied social convention to cut herself adrift from a secure marriage and live with a younger, rootless adventurer, she knows her position to be hopeless and chooses between struggling on or ending it all – the devil or….
Helen McCrory, too often cast as a pantomime villainess, is as good as I have ever seen her, giving Hester raw passion, spirited defiance and also, more unusually, a hint of optimism. Peter Sullivan as her tolerant husband and Tom Burke as her feckless lover match her and the smaller roles, written by Rattigan with meticulous attention to detail, are all played lovingly.
Designer Tom Scutt must have wished that he could have been able to create something similar to the set at the Arcola and place it in the Dorfman theatre, but it is not his fault that the pokey Ladbroke Grove flat in which the entire play takes place looks as if it stretches all the way across to Portobello Road. Actually, he does rather well with the acres of space available to him, showing the flat to be part of a bigger building, with tenants going about their business unaware of the possible tragedy unfolding. As always, the Lyttelton works against any play that needs intimacy, but, otherwise, Rattigan’s play and Cracknell’s production of it are both close to flawless.
Performance date: 27 June 2016