Arcola Theatre, London (****)
Who knows what kind of plays Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward might have written had homosexuality not been a criminal offence during their lifetime. As it is, Rattigan and Coward still wrote some of the most subtle, complex and humane dramas of the post-war years in mufti. It was all in the sub-texts.The Deep Blue Sea – shortly to be revived at the National Theatre – is regarded as one of Rattigan’s best, a dark tale of passion, unrequited love and desperation with attempted suicide – another illegal act – at its core.
First appearing in 1952, at its centre was Hester Collyer, the wife of a judge besotted by the brave but rootless former fighter pilot, Freddy. Hester was based on a real life model very close to Rattigan’s heart – his love affair with a young actor, Kenny Morgan, who did indeed take his own life.
Mike Poulton has re-imagined the play Rattigan might have written had he been allowed to be true to himself, cleverly allowing his version to run within the original but one that carries its own tremendous force.
Still a story of despair, either by the author’s design or Lucy Bailey’s atmospheric production, this version gives us an even more vivid sense of life in post-war England through its peripheral characters: Mrs Simpson, the landlady (Marlene Sidaway), Welsh boarding neighbour, Dafyyd Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo) and George Irving’s struck off Jewish doctor, Mr Ritter – all excellent.
Through these three, we come to see the hermetic world of Kenny, his lover Alec and his older lover, Rattigan, in fresh perspective, one that amusingly even makes cogent comment on their behaviour as a result of working in the theatre.
Hester is now Paul Keating’s vulnerable Kenny, a sometime promising actor living in grotty Camden digs; Freddy his lover, now Alec, a wonderfully no-holds-barred performance from Pierro Niel-Mee of youthful, brutal opportunism.
Hester’s husband, the judge, is now Rattigan himself, the playboy playwright of the Albany, played by Simon Dutton with just the right shading of emotional fear of discovery, despite fame and fortune.
Poulton’s recreation underscores for a new generation the consequences of lives forced into deceit and denial and the cost of hope and wisdom, acquired by Ritter through the bitterest of experiences.
Rattigan, no doubt, would have approved and has transfer written all over it.
Kenneth Morgan: Paul Keating
Dafydd Lloyd: Matthew Bulgo
Mrs Simpson: Marlene Sidaway
Mr Ritter: George Irving
Terence Rattigan: Simon Dutton
Alec Lennox: Pierro Niel-Mee
Norma Hastings: Lowenna Melrose
Director: Lucy Bailey
Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Jack Knowles
Sound Designer: Neil McKeown