The Deep Blue Sea, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until July 27
Vague memories that The Deep Blue Sea last time round at the CFT was just a bit stodgy and dull are instantly dispelled by a Minerva revival which completely grips from the start – a production which also underlines everything that Plenty in the main house needed to be… and wasn’t.
We are in similar post-war territory, a world where purposelessness and disillusionment have taken hold after the immediacy and certainty of war have disappeared.
But everything that the Plenty revival got wrong, Paul Foster’s compelling, astute production of The Deep Blue Sea gets right. No sparse stages, silly music and distracting projections here; instead, we get a superb set offering a detailed evocation of an era.
It looks and feels absolutely authentic – and therefore proves the perfect platform for everything that follows. Outstanding acting does the rest on a superb night for the Festival Theatre.
Terence Rattigan’s tale of love, despair and hope is famously a gay relationship in disguise, but more importantly it works beautifully in the form in which he released it to the world – a play which opens with Hester Collyer unconscious on the floor of her shabby flat, having attempted to take her own life.
It transpires that she has been living with her dodgy ex-RAF boyfriend having abandoned her highly respectable husband – and that her boyfriend’s behaviour has reduced her to the point where death seems the only way out.
The brilliance of this production – or more specifically, the acting – is that everything seems utterly plausible.
Gerald Kyd gives us a husband who is thoroughly decent, so completely, painfully decent in fact that you can see exactly why she left him.
Hadley Fraser is equally impressive as ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page, a man who has turned to the bottle now his country no longer needs him.
He has become a total cad, and you can hear the audience gasp as he delivers a shocking moment of complete brutality and utter callousness towards the end of the first half. And yet you can see what has drawn Hester to him, just as much as you can see the reason for her despair.
Playing Hester is Nancy Carroll, a brilliant performance of remarkable expressiveness, of anger, of love and of heartbreak. Again, it’s the sheer persuasiveness of the performance which makes it so powerful, so moving and so watchable.
Important too in the mix is Matthew Cottle’s Mr Miller, the mystery man whose past disgrace is hinted at, whose background is never explained and whose sole role seems to be to inject a curious mix of detachment and compassion into the proceedings.
The end result is one of the finest Minerva productions in years – a timely reminder that in the right hands Rattigan remains a playwright of rare and deeply-understood humanity.