Monday 18 July 2016

The Deep Blue Sea at the National, or, An Emotionally Cold Evening

Note: This is a review of the performance on Tuesday 12th July 2016.

Carrie Cracknell and Helen McCrory who previously united at the National for a much praised Medea in 2014 now return for what is, apparently, Rattigan's masterpiece. Just about every other critic seems to have loved this. As with that earlier Medea I was not very favourably impressed.

For those not familiar with the play, it concerns the mess Hester Collyer (McCrory) has apparently made of her life, both in regards to any profession (she may have some artistic talent, but has not fully developed it) and her love life (she spends much of the evening dealing with her ex-husband, a straight-laced judge, and her current lover, an ex-RAF pilot). The central question is whether the thwarted suicide which opens the play will become a successful one by the conclusion.

The action takes place entirely within a London flat. Cracknell and Scutt have chosen to create an entire block, to obviously indicate that the walls have been taken away along one side to allow us to view the action, and to use gauze screens as walls giving us views beyond the single large room occupied by McCrory into the other flats and stair. In the spaces beyond the other tenants periodically move about in a rather ghostly fashion. I suspect the intention is to emphasise McCrory's isolation, but it doesn't ultimately work. With once exception (the still, haunted German immigrant in the flat upstairs) these movements, coupled with Peter Rice's weird, unconvincing soundscape are generally distracting rather than ominous. The indication of the missing wall at the front, and the sight of unused bits of the Lyttelton stage to the sides (at least from the Circle) doesn't help either – it is too easy to imagine McCrory stepping outside of the room by a number of exits apart from what is supposed to be the only door.

The more serious problem lies in the performances and what struck me as directorial lack of clarity. To some extent I accept that the text is ambiguous about motivations, but it is not as ambiguous as this version renders it. There is plenty of concrete detail about several of the characters – Collyer being a clergyman's daughter, Page being an RAF ace. Yet, I rarely believed that these people were who they were described as being. Worse was the lack of emotional depth. This was, for me a particular problem with McCrory and I was interested to find (looking back at previous posts) that this is the third time I've seen her on stage and I've have similar problems on each occasion. The bit of the part she really makes work is on the surface – the amused retorts of the self-possessed English upper middle class woman. Some of these lines are mildly amusing. But the meat of the play is the desperation, the sense of entrapment, the emotional misery which is behind that occasionally successfully assembled facade – McCrory rarely convinced me when it came to the latter and as a result I was emotionally unengaged. Further, in a play like this with elements of ambiguity in the text, it isn't that I think that the performer has to tell you everything, but that you have to believe that the performer has decided what lies behind the lines – for example, in this case, that the performer has decided how Hester really feels about either of the two men. This just didn't sufficiently come across. Ultimately, a true star performance is one from which you cannot take your eyes. Others have evidently found this with McCrory, but it has not been my experience.

The finest performance of the evening is in fact from Nick Fletcher in the secondary role of Miller, the German immigrant. He alone consistently moved me. I found the contrast with McCrory telling – we are never told why Miller has been struck off the medical register, but I never doubted for a second that Miller himself knew exactly what had occurred and had endured the other things he mentions. As the classically repressed English judge, Peter Sullivan gives the more solid performance of McCrory's two men, but needs to work on his projection (too many lines were not sufficiently audible in the Circle) and doesn't quite convince in terms of the balance between that repression and the passion which occasionally bursts out. Again it is not clear, as it needs to be, that he knows what he actually feels behind the lines delivered. Tom Burke, who I enjoyed in the NT's Doctor's Dilemma, was rather less convincing here – I never quite believed in his past life as a test pilot, or in the passion that's supposed to be driving him and McCrory towards disaster. The interfering young couple are played too much for laughs, eliding the edge of desperation which is very clearly there in the script.

As I noted at the outset, everyone else is raving about this. As far as I was concerned it wasn't a patch on the brilliant revival of Flare Path at the Haymarket a few years ago which covered many of the same themes, to my mind far more powerfully. This is distinctly missable.

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