Opened 16 September, 2003

Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea is full of echoes. Echoes of Ibsen, whose Hedda Gabler and (especially) Nora Helmer reverberate in the figure of Hester Collyer. Echoes of Somerset Maugham, to whose The Constant Wife (revived in the West End last year) this seems a rueful rejoinder, arguing that even in 1952 women faced almost insuperable odds to finding a path for themselves. Echoes even of the author's own life: the play was inspired by the suicide of his former lover Kenneth Morgan, and it may not be fanciful to see shades of a self-critical Rattigan in Hester's husband, offering whatever he can do to help but ultimately unable and, for all his good heart, uncomprehending.

Yet it is not principally her marriage which so entangles Hester, but the one-sided love affair for which she deserted it and which is now itself foundering. The feelings are complex: Hester wants free of it, but her ideal route to freedom is through bluff but selfish Freddie beginning to love her properly rather than abandoning her. Socially she is in limbo, having given up respectability as the wife of a judge and become a mere appendage. When the unsentimental ex-Dr Miller, her neighbour in a shabby rooming-house, revives her after an attempt to gas herself, she feels the stirrings of friendship not just due to an obscure solidarity (he too has fallen on hard times, after being struck off for something "too unspeakable to mention") but because this is the first real human interest to have been shown her in an age.

The play's social critique is incisive, but in performance it is entirely secondary to Hester's emotional travails. In Thea Sharrock's touring production (which I saw at Richmond), Harriet Walter is magnificent: flinty determination, hysterical breakdown, genteel denial, unfulfilled yearning... she steers an expert course from one to another, tacking back and forth, always seeming utterly natural and never simply blown by the winds of the script. As Miller, Roger Lloyd Pack gives a welcome reminder that there is much more to his talent than TV sitcom sidemen. And Rachel Blues' set makes its own quiet statement, with the walls flying in at the beginning to signify Hester's confinement and out again at the end, leaving her, as the lighting effects ripple around her, almost literally at sea.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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