Tamsin Greig: The Dramatic Dilemma

Image credits: Manuel Harlan

Tamsin Greig takes on the role of Hester in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at The Ustinov. She talks to Georgette McCready about the intensity of the role, which she likens to that of a female Hamlet.

She has one of the most distinctive voices around, recognisable instantly, whether she’s playing Debbie Aldridge in The Archers, the mum Jackie in Friday Night Dinner, Fran in Black Books, or the voice of Mummy in The Tiger Who Came to Tea. We have also enjoyed her on screen, playing alongside Stephen Mangan and Matt Le Blanc in Episodes.

Tamsin Greig is also an actor who seems to be equally powerful, whether she is playing for laughs or in intense, dramatic roles. She has an emotional honesty about her performances which endear her to audiences on screen and in live theatre. She won an Olivier Best Actress award for Much Ado About Nothing and was nominated for The Little Dog Laughed and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Oliver Chris (Freddie) and Tamsin Greig (Hester)

I was lucky enough to grab a chat with Tamsin during rehearsals for The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan ahead of its run at The Ustinov in Bath. This new production of the 1952 play by the writer of The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and Separate Tables, stars Tamsin as Hester, the wife of a judge, who has embarked on a turbulent affair with Freddie, an ex-RAF wartime pilot. Her lover is played by Oliver Chris, who you may recognise from Motherland and The Crown. His theatre credits include King Charles III in London and on Broadway and One Man, Two Guvnors, also in the West End and in New York.

The Deep Blue Sea has been staged many times since it opened in those post war years. Hester is torn between the devil and the deep blue sea as she contemplates her future and feels the pain of her affair and the passion it releases in her. I asked Tamsin about the notion of shame, would the emotions felt in the 1950s be the same as we feel today? We live in very different times, after all.
“I think we have a different sense of shame now,” she says. “Divorce then was seen to be a shameful situation, whereas now we are more understanding when a marriage comes to an end. But we still have that deep sense of shame, even in what can be an over-sharing age.

“Hester feels her shame, some feelings are too intimate and raw. And there is so much judgement around her, her husband is a judge and she is her own harsh critic.”

Hester is torn between the devil and the deep blue sea as she contemplates her future and feels the pain of her affair and the passion it releases in her”

The Ustinov is a very small theatre, with just over 100 seats, where the audience is so close to the actors the emotion in the air is palpable. We can not only see the whites of their eyes, but every blink too.

“I haven’t acted there before,” says Tamsin, “but I hear it’s a brilliant space that holds a play intimately.”

Tamsin is a passionate advocate for the power of connection in live theatre. After the pandemic, the actor wrote about the importance of live performance: “I think what we have seen this year {during the pandemic} is that creativity is not a distraction.”
She says of The Deep Blue Sea’s run in Bath: “Every performance is different, and that’s because every audience is different, their response is essential.”

This production is directed by Lindsay Posner, the theatre director with a fantastic track record in the West End, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre. He is currently riding high in Bath, where he has attracted the attention of the media and theatre goers with his productions of A View From the Bridge, with Dominic West (which has transferred to the West End) and Harold Pinter’s duo The Lover/The Collection with two more TV stars, David Morrissey and Mathew Horne. The Deep Blue Sea also stars Nicholas Farrell (as Hester’s husband Sir William Collyer), Finbar Lynch, Felicity Montagu, Preston Nyman, Lisa Ambalanvanar and Marc Elliott.

Terence Rattigan wrote this taut, emotional drama after the break-up of a gay love affair and is it felt that he poured a lot of his own feelings into writing the relationship between Hester and Freddie. Rattigan lived through that repressive time in English society when male homosexuality was illegal.

Tamsin says of Hester: “I feel in some ways she is almost like a female Hamlet, facing up to herself and with those meditations. Yes, I think you could say it’s a harrowing play, there is certainly a robust unravelling taking place!”

Finbar Lynch (Miller) and Tamsin Greig (Hester)

I ask her how she comes down after such an intense performance.

“When I’m in London I generally cycle home. That physical exercise gives me a chance to let things out the Pandora’s box of what I have just been through. I don’t know what I will do in Bath, maybe I will walk Hester out of me.”

Or you might just hear the sound of Tamsin practising the bass guitar to unwind after a show. Her next role, she tells me, is in a six-part drama series for the BBC, Riot Women. It’s been written by Sally Wainwright, creator of the brilliant Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Gentleman Jack, and will be shot around Wainwright’s familiar stomping ground of Hebden Bridge.

“Riot Woman is about five friends, women of a certain age, coping with work, grown-up children, dependant parents and husbands, who decide to form a punk band. It’s going to be great fun. I am learning to play bass guitar for it,” says Tamsin.

I ask her about her knowledge of Bath. “I don’t really know it, but I have visited on tour {2009 in Gethsemene}. I am really looking forward to it. It will be nice to spend part of the summer in Bath, a new city for me.”

If you want to catch Tamsin on the small screen, and let’s face it, tickets for her Ustinov run are like gold dust, you can currently watch her in the comedy drama series The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin on Apple TV, starring The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding as the 18th-century highwayman. She enters the action as Lady Helen, from episode three.

“That was such fun,” Tamsin recalls, “I got to play Lady Helen, the head of a crime syndicate. She’s very posh, very powerful and polite, until she loses her s***, then she’s basically like a toddler. Yes, she’s like a very rich child. I got the call to say would I like to play a powerful woman who bullies Hugh Bonneville. Well, I didn’t need to be asked twice!”

The Deep Blue Sea runs at The Ustinov, 2 May – 1 June. theatreroyal.org.uk