Theatre review: The Deep Blue Sea

Ustinov Studio, until 1 June
Words by Emma Clegg

The first performance of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea in 1952 was delivered to a hushed, enraptured audience and ended with cheers and massive applause. A critic of the day described it as, “the best play Mr Rattigan has written. This is not mere impersonation. It is, and excitingly, life”. 

Certainly the roll call of extraordinary actors taking on the lead role of Hester Collyer has continued its continuing lure as a stirring and significant play of almost classical intensity, featuring Peggy Ashcroft (1952), Sheila Hancock (1977), Dorothy Tutin (1981), Penelope Keith (1988), Penelope Wilton (1993). Harriet Walter (2003) Maxine Peake (2011) and Helen McCrory (2016). The play has been likened to a Greek tragedy, with the action taking place in the same location (a West London flat in a down at heel 1950s apartment block) and unfolding over just 24 hours. Certainly the rawness and emotional intensity on display from Hester would have been shocking in 1952, to a post-war audience less used to public displays of emotion and where the importance of mental health would have been unrecognised.

Tamsin Greig takes on the role of Hester Collyer in this production directed by Lindsay Posner. The story depicts a triangular relationship between Hester, her estranged High Court judge husband Sir William Collyer (Nicholas Farrell) and Freddie (Oliver Chris) the man and ex-fighter pilot she left her husband for. The play opens with an act of despair, the failed suicide of Hester next to a gas fire where the gas had cut out because of the lack of a shilling. She is in search of emotional connection and meaningful love and has found first her husband and now Freddie lacking.

Greig is mesmerising, passionate, agonised and full of bite and disappointment, fed by her frustration around not having a love that feeds and sustains, with the other characters either contributing to or observing the tragedy she is playing out. She is the circular force, with the others the chorus commenting on the action within this aspiring ‘Greek tragedy’. In between scenes the melancholy refrain of Etta James’ Stormy Weather taps into the mood of this grey post-war era and Hester’s mental state. There are moments of vocal raw emotion in the second act that must have been searing to a 1950s audience and are still alarming today. Oliver Chris (Motherland/The Crown) as Freddie who appears late in the first act and whose time on stage is more limited, has a disarming charm and a magnificent energy and presence. It’s clear in his portrayal why Hester was drawn to this man, and yet his investment in her (and in his future) falls short. Nicholas Farrell (one of the stars of 1981 film Chariots of Fire) as Sir William creates a convincingly smooth, successful gentleman and a conventional counterpoint, further exposing Hester’s naked emotion.

Nicholas Farrell as Sir William Collyer and Tamsin Greig as Hester Collyer

Other characters surrounding the action include Felicity Montagu as the well-meaning landlady Mrs Elton, a helpful foil for unravelling Hester’s thoughts. Finbar Lynch as Miller, Hester’s upstairs neighbour, is a doctor struck off the register for an undisclosed reason – his character and the intensity of his performance offers a constant enlightening commentary and insights around Hester’s obsessive state of mind, ultimately guiding her to a more accepting, hopeful resolution.  

Rattigan’s motivation for the play was based on his own relationship with younger actor Kenneth Morgan, who committed suicide in front of a gas fire. But Hester is no man dressed as a woman – Rattigan creates a convincing and connected female character whose life has been blighted by love – and Greig steps into the role with passion and resonance.  

Felicity Montagu as Mrs Elton and Preston Nyman as Philip Welch