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Review: Helen McCrory is both playful and doleful in the gripping The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre

Tumblr_o32so5LNaE1qci1qdo1_500The Lyttleton Theatre's safety curtain rises to reveal a flat. The walls are gauzy so you can see the corridor and stairs beyond including the upstairs landing. On the floor in front of the fire is a woman covered in a blanket and outside the door someone is calling anxiously for 'Mrs Page'.

Terrence Rattigan's 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea opens with a failed suicide. Hester (Helen McCrory) has taken some aspirin and turned the gas tap on but the attempt ultimately fails for the want of another shilling. It is a moment of control that fails, perhaps.  A moment of control in, what we subsequently discover, is an unhappy, out-of-control life.

The suicide attempt exposes Hester's secret to her neighbours. Freddie Page (Tom Burke) - a former test pilot - isn't her husband but her lover who drinks too much and prefers to spend his weekends playing golf with his friends. Her husband Lord William Colyer (Peter Sullivan) is a High Court judge and has thus far refused to grant her a divorce.

Helen McCrory's Hester is a mixture of doleful, manipulative and charming. There are glimpses of an endearing playfulness as well as a desperation as she realises that she is losing Freddie. She is a woman who realises that her hold on the men in her life is sexual but what she wants is something beyond that.

When Freddie unpacks his heart to her when they first meet has she misread the signs? There is pride too - is it pride that prevents her from accepting her husband's offer she does, after all, light up when he talks about their friends and social life? Lord Collyer is a proud man too but is it pride or love that won't let him give up Hester?

Tom Burke's Freddie is charming, aloof and self-centred; the casualness with which he throws out injurious comments belies just how hurtful they are. He drew gasps from the audience.

The Deep Blue Sea is an emotional drama that intrigues and grips from the outset. The central characters are complex, richly layered and expertly played, expertly playing with your emotions. Helen McCrory gives a breathtaking and heartbreaking performance and I'm giving it five stars. It is two hours and 40 minutes long with an interval.

It is on the Lyttleton stage at the National Theatre until September 21.

Related article:

Interview with Helen McCrory in The Telegraph "I’ve just done a rehearsal in which I played Hester as a Southern belle smashed out of her head, just for fun."