Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Review: The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea is Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece and the production at the Gate Theatre is a near-faultless presentation. It works like a difficult jigsaw puzzle, each piece put into position in a breathtaking sequence of what, in their day, would have been called sordid, ordinary events. A love affair comes to an end and everyone is hurt by the catastrophe. The action is encompassed in a single day. The characters are all changed by it. The thread of hope at the end is like the thinnest strand of cotton. We never cease wondering about the infinite frailties of the human heart.

Ingrid Craigie plays the central figure, Hester Collyer, magnificently. Separated wife of a distinguished lawyer – now a judge – but lover of a shallow, superficial, out of work waster, she lives in modest London lodgings, paints a bit and survives. She achieves this solely for the sake of Freddie Page, who does not respond, forgets her birthday, says all the wrong things and steadily sinks until he is out of his depth. His threatened departure, on grounds of not being able to cope, affects everyone, drawing together the strings of action until one by one they break. It is the dismal London of the early 1950s, wonderfully realised in a shabby-genteel setting in which Hester’s despair pushes her towards a bungled suicide and then seems to offer a form of rescue.

Craigie plays the changing impact of this on her heart beautifully; she is sensitive to every nuance of feeling. She is the great pivot around which revolve some stunning examples of supportive stage-craft. Bryan Murray is superb as the soft-spoken, wealthy, puzzled husband who thinks love is helping and has to face the sustained storm of her indifference. Michael James Ford and Marion Dwyer are bewildered neighbours drawn in as witnesses to a passion they do not understand. John Kavanagh is another casualty of his own past who redeems himself by grasping the true nature of her anguish. He helps her to rescue the fragments of her life and go on with it. Risteard Cooper is a brilliant Freddie, playing to perfection events in which his soul is bared by his own inadequacy. Barbara Brennan’s landlady, Mrs Elton, gives a wonderful performance. And Stephen Swift is excellent as Freddie’s side-kick, Jackie Jackson.

This is powerful, even great theatre, make no mistake about it. Alan Stanford’s direction has produced a miracle of collective endeavour rarely so well integrated. It is like a subtle mosaic, each piece a gem of judgement.