Following the recent London revivals of Flare Path and Cause Célébre, the focus of the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations now moves to Chichester where the Festival Theatre is presenting an exciting and very wide-ranging season dedicated to the playwright and his work. First up is Philip Franks’s production of Rattigan’s classic The Deep Blue Sea, which is partially cross-cast with Nicholas Wright’s new play, Rattigan’s Nijinsky. Franks’s approach to The Deep Blue Sea is straightforward and traditional, and if the production doesn’t quite match Karel Reisz’s production [reviewed here and now available in the very desirable Rattigan boxset] for sustained intensity, it remains a fine account of the play that sensitively conveys its sadnesses, its humour and its hopes.
As Hester, the expert Amanda Root gives a marvellously unfussy and affecting performance that compellingly captures the difficulty of the character’s position. Here, Hester’s clear-eyed awareness of her predicament in no way mitigates her sexual and emotional dependency upon Freddie (the always-engaging John Hopkins). This dependency is conveyed powerfully in the scene in which Freddie announces that he’s leaving her, Root’s face contorting with shock and grief at the news. Still, it’s Root’s discreet delivery of the line “Just my love” that encapsulates the economy and intelligence of her performance best. Her scenes with Pip Donaghy’s wry, sympathetic Mr. Miller are especially strong, and their final encounter was the emotional highlight of the production for me. Anthony Calf finds more humour in the cuckolded Sir William than I’ve ever seen an actor do before and, like Penelope Wilton and Ian Holm in the Reisz production, he and Root suggest the weight of a real history together. In support, Susan Tracy pitches her Mrs. Elton just right (“Sad, isn’t it, how one always seems to prefer nice people to good people, don’t you think?”) and Faye Castelow and Joseph Drake (whom it took a while to recognise from his star turn earlier this year in the Young Vic's Vernon God Little) are distinguished as the Welches. Drake is especially effective in the superb late scene in which Philip arrogantly reveals his interest in Hester’s dilemma as part of his “study of human nature.”
Indeed, Franks’s production revealed something about the design of the play that’s never occurred to me before: the extent to which the structure revolves around a woman receiving advice and judgements about her actions from others before finding (via the intervention of an apparently peripheral character) the courage and resolve to try to make her own way and “begin again.” It’s an arc that’s traced with particular clarity and insight in this accomplished and thoroughly involving production.
The production runs for 2 hours 35 minutes and is playing in rep with Rattigan’s Nijinsky until 3rd September. Further information here.