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Theatre review: The Deep Blue Sea

Pitchperfect:
Tom Burke
and Helen
McCrory PICTURE: RICHARD SMITH

REVIEW

The Deep Blue Sea

nationaltheatre.org.uk★★★★✩

HELEN McCRORY might be indelibly associated with her tough-as-nails matriarch in Peaky Blinders — but she’s never been better than as anguished wife Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan’s wrenching 1952 study of an emotionally stifled post-war England.

She’s left her respectable marriage to an upper-class judge for a life of precarious passion with the feckless former fighter pilot Freddie. Yet as the play opens we see her crumpled by the gas fire, empty jar of sleeping pills on the table, after Freddie goes on a bender and forgets her birthday.

That she has merely swapped one form of unhappiness for another is made piercingly apparent. Hester, her life saved by a neighbour, throws everything she has at preserving the illusion of her great love affair, only for it all to slip through her fingers.

The Ibsenite play, set in Hester’s dingy bedsit, has a whiff of mothball.

But it still captures a traumatised country in microcosm — a place where married women have no agency, upright husbands don’t know how to love their wives, homosexual men cannot be themselves and war veterans seek oblivion in drink.

Carrie Cracknell’s 2016 production, wreathed in blue light, captures Hester’s isolation beautifully while showing the tenants in her boarding house each trapped in a quiet little lie of respectability.

Everyone is on pitch-perfect form here, including Peter Sullivan as the silently helpless husband and Tom Burke as dangerously self-sabotaging bounder Freddie. But it’s McCrory’s show — her exquisite performance running the gamut from self-loathing, sexual hunger and desperate hope to despairing resignation. See it and weep.