The Deep Blue Sea, Chichester Festival Theatre, August 2011

A shilling in the meter, for those of us who remember, was essential to keep the gas and electricity going. Awfully annoying when the money runs out unexpectedly, but in this case it saves Hester’s life. She took sleeping pills and put on the gas deliberately.

Collyer and Hester, all photos Manuel Harlan

As Mrs. Page she complains about being a ‘golf widow’, but when she’s found half gassed to death it turns out she’s really Mrs. Collyer, estranged wife of the judge, Sir William, superbly played by Anthony Calf. He’d no idea where she was living, but as soon as he’s told he comes round immediately. He still cares, very much, but has pretended not to, “I thought my indifference would hurt your vanity”. At the end of Act I we find out why she chose this moment to commit suicide. We also meet her lover Freddie Page, beautifully played by John Hopkins. He’s an ex-test pilot, ex-RAF, with good looks and charm that exceed by a long way his ability to earn a living.

Freddie Page

The ultimate failure of their relationship is inevitable, but the ending remains very much in doubt at the start of Act III, which was prefaced by music from one of Britten’s four sea interludes. Mr. Miller, the ex-doctor, very ably portrayed by Pip Donaghy, is the key to hope. He seems to understand her, “Most people commit suicide to escape. You do so because you feel you’re unworthy”. There is more where that comes from, “To live without hope is to live without despair”. Donaghy was excellent, as was Susan Tracy as Mrs. Elton the landlady. She is the epitome of common sense in this wonderful play by Terence Rattigan.

The trouble for me was that I didn’t really care whether Hester lived or died. As Mr. Miller says, “The purpose of life is to live”, but she seemed to lack a vitality that must have attracted Freddie in the first place. Amanda Root played Hester very naturally as a precise and sensitive woman caught up in an affair she thinks means everything, and you can see why she falls for Freddie, though not why he falls for her. That would seem to be an essential ingredient, and while the director Philip Franks did a terrific job with Rattigan’s Nijinsky this didn’t achieve the same theatrical impact.

Mr. Miller and Hester

A movie of this story starring Rachel Weisz as Hester is due out later this year. In the meantime performances at Chichester continue until September 3 — for details click here.

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