One day, one room, one woman, one penny away from suicide. Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at Chichester Festival Theatre is minimalist in time and space, but deep in its study of the human heart and soul. Camille Lapaix reviews:

Terence Rattigan famously found inspiration for The Deep Blue Sea upon hearing that his former boyfriend had gassed himself and died.

It was 1949.

Deep Blue Sea Chichester Festival Theatre

Nancy Carroll (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

As “the hardest of [his] plays to write”, The Deep Blue Sea follows a day in the living room of a Ladbroke Grove flat where Hester Page -although really Hester Collyer (Nancy Carroll) – is found unconscious by her neighbours and landlady; she has taken an overdose in front of the gas fire. Hester’s husband, Judge Sir William Collyer (Gerald Kyd), is contacted but Hester left him ten months prior, diving headfirst into a passionate whirlwind of an affair with Freddie Page (Hadley Fraser), an ex-RAF pilot who is now unemployed and partial to his liquor.

Director Paul Foster preserves the original period setting, uncovering the characters in the midst of post-war uncertainty, insecurities and disillusionment. Peter McKintosh’s set is sparse, a canvas to house words and performances – every prop is used for purposeful reasons and stripped off of any idle flourish. The setting is a mundane living room, with the added peculiarity of black debris and ruins bordering the stage as a painful reminder of the damages caused by war. This set reflects the characters it houses – survivors in ruins.

Deep Blue Sea Chichester Festival Theatre

Nancy Carroll & Ralph Davis (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Rattigan’s exquisite stagecraft combined with Foster’s well-defined direction come through in this production. Each word has a purpose; each action is an arrow hitting the bullseye. When offstage, Hester’s suicide attempt is seen only in relation to the other characters:

the former doctor Mr Miller (a quiet, nonchalant and selflessly safe turn by Matthew Cottle) who tends to her;

Ann Welch (a subtle and charming Helena Wilson) who delights in the spectacle,

and her husband Phillip (a brilliantly pompous Ralph Davis) who seizes the opportunity to jump into action and take charge.

Hester is the narrative of the play itself, the first and last character seen onstage, the one unmoving element of the play around which every other character orbits. All exist in relation to her.

Deep Blue Sea Chichester Festival Theatre

Gerald Kyd (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

In Foster’s hands, with a superb cast and a staging that amplifies the claustrophobic atmosphere, The Deep Blue Sea‘s emotional complexity centres arouns Hester’s inner battle, her unsettled mind unsure of what it wants but certain of what it doesn’t. Carroll exudes conflict, a gripping intensity in portraying Hester’s agonisign indecision, distress and heartache. Above all is that of passion versus reason, lust versus stoicism, the good Judge Collyer versus the flamboyance of Mr Page. Carroll’s interactions with Kyd and Fraser respectively underline Hester’s steamroller of emotions with nuances that can only be qualified as pristine.

Despite facing Carroll, the male co-stars are not outdone in the least. Kyd emanates righteousness and decency as Hester’s estranged husband, a portrayal of the cuckolded and stoic Judge Collyer that is subtle, quiet and even cordial. In near-perfect counterpoint, Freddie Page is not shy of feelings, and Fraser deliver a tidal wave of emotions that could almost cause a whiplash.

Deep Blue Sea Chichester Festival Theatre

Hadley Fraser & Nancy Carroll (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

In a scene that sees the three female characters together, Ann admits,

“I know it’s awfully silly of me, but I’m not very good at being left alone”.

It’s a shy comment that echoes Hester’s heart-breaking scream when Freddie leaves her, “Don’t leave me alone tonight”!

When leaving The Deep Blue Sea behind, there is the sense that beyond the tales of love, despair and passion, a leitmotif can be found in such loneliness and isolation.

Yet Foster’s production allows for an immersive experience in the human condition. The Deep Blue Sea is a reminder that Rattigan is a playwright with a unique and profound comprehension of humanity; a playwright who remains relatable through the ages.

★★★★☆

The Deep Blue Sea plays at Chichester Festival Theatre until 27 July 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the venue website.