“Moderation in all things has always been my motto”
Whereas productions celebrating Sondheim’s 80th birthday lasted all the blessed year long, the flurry of Terence Rattigan plays, marking the centenary year of his birth, seems to have died out in London at least. But in Chichester as their season moves into full swing, the first of a number of Rattigan productions starts with The Deep Blue Sea, a preview of which I caught on my first ever trip to the Chichester Festival Theatre.
It’s actually my second The Deep Blue Sea of the year, the first I travelled to the West Yorkshire Playhouse for to see Maxine Peake play the lead role and though several people had said to me that they thought she was too young for the role, as it was the first time I’d seen the play, it didn’t really affect me that much: having seen this production I see how that skewed the whole dynamic of the show. Here, director Philip Franks has stayed closer to the original intent by casting an older actress as Hester, in this case a stunning Amanda Root, which made the tangled nature of the relationships around her make more sense.
Hester is a respectable clergyman’s daughter who has cast aside her comfortable middle-aged life and marriage to chase her burning desire for a younger man, a fighter pilot struggling to adapt to the mundanity of post-war life, moving into a boarding house with him. But her love for him is far more than he is capable of returning and the intensity of her emotion spills over the middle-class resolve of those around her as her frustrations at her attempt to break free from the shackles of society’s conventions leave her questioning whether it is all worth it.
I found the first act a little slow to start, though given how tired I was and the assurance of my companion, this was me rather than the production itself, but given the show is still in preview it is in extremely fine shape. Amanda Root is scintillating as the woman struggling against a lifetime of social conditioning and the fiery bursts of passion combined with her crushing sense of realism are just electrifying to watch. There’s a moment where our cheap seats to the side paid dividends as she slumped onto a chaise longue heartbroken and we just saw her back, beautifully evoking one of the greatest performances by a woman recently (also in a Rattigan show).
But where the show really worked for me was in her relationships with the men in her life. The contrast of having her lover Freddie as a younger man worked well, with John Hopkins as the emotionally-hobbled but still sexually charismatic former RAF man unsure of his place in the world and unable to deal with the torrent of emotion directed at him. But Anthony Calf as the husband that Hester has left but who still wants her back was just sensational. Being more of an age of each other really made the emotional connection work: they seemed perfectly suited together and so Calf’s quietly bemused, dignified disbelief tugged at the heartstrings all the more powerfully as he fails to dissuade Hester from her path: the two confrontations of the second act are just magical stuff.
In the rest of the cast, Faye Castelow and a barely-recognisable though spiffing-looking Joseph Drake gave good support as the nosy neighbours as did Susan Tracy’s bustling landlady. Pip Donaghy’s doctor could perhaps find a more empathetic mix of quirkiness and kindness if I were to venture my opinion, but it was all still classily done. I was impressed at the way Mike Britton’s simple design worked on the large open stage (but as at WYP, the space somewhat works against creating the cramped atmosphere of small rooms), nicely judged costuming doing most of the work and Hester’s scarlet wrap-around dress being just perfect.
So a great introduction to Chichester for me, even if the audience (d’un certain âge natch) regularly laughed at the most bizarre of moments, and a much welcomed opportunity to reassess The Deep Blue Sea with a handsome production of a simply beautiful play of intimately human yet huge emotional impact. Though I often think it is mad how much theatre I’m seeing at the moment and how far I travel for it, this is why I love it: being able to take in two contrasting productions of a top quality play that I haven’t seen before and reminding myself that there’s so much to be explored in the theatrical world beyond London.