CW: This article mentions suicide and mental health.
Stories that take place solely in one room have always fascinated me. Think Twelve Angry Men, Pinter’s The Dumbwaiter, or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Because the place and time do not change, the performances of the actors must be especially mesmerising. There’s also currently a rather glaring reason the one-room play might be of interest; watching, as we are, from our own rooms rather than from the shared space of the theatre, many of us now have personal reasons to reflect on the experience of isolation.
Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea is set in one room – a dingy 1950s apartment, blown up to gigantic proportions on the stage and lit in ghostly gas-light blue. The play takes place over a single day too. It begins with an act of despair – Hester Collyer, the estranged wife of a high court judge, attempts to commit suicide. Her action is influenced by the callous behaviour of her lover, Freddie Page, a handsome, feckless ex-RAF pilot (who says things like, ‘My god, aren’t women the end!?’). The story of Hester’s tempestuous affair with Freddie, and the breakdown of her rather austere marriage to Sir William Collyer, gradually emerges. With it comes a portrait of need, loneliness and long-repressed passion. The play ends as it begins, beside the gas-fire, but this time it is lit – a tiny gesture of hope.
The play touches on some very dark themes – there are perhaps few bleaker openings than a failed suicide attempt. Discussion of such matters is necessary, however, and Rattigan’s script tackles the heavy subject matter with self-awareness and nuance. The experiences of Rattigan’s characters are made considerably more difficult by their era’s lack of openness about mental health especially since, at the time, attempted suicide was illegal. The atmosphere of the tenement is thick with shame and fear of social exposure. Echoes of ‘disgrace’ and ‘failure’ linger on the staircases. Above Hester lives Mr. Miller, a doctor struck off the register for an undisclosed reason. His parting words to her are candid and moving:
“You alone know how you have felt. You alone know how unequal the battle has always been your will has had to fight.”
Helen McCrory is the play’s shining lead – the full spectrum of emotions flicker across her face over a performance that is beautifully complex. She balances hints of paranoia with a tenacious steeliness, fragile yet funny, desperate yet resilient. She dreads the moments she is left alone, to tremble and pace, and in one unforgettable sequence, lies silently down on the floor wracked with an unknown pain. Yet in Freddie’s presence she becomes a different woman, her features blazing with what can only be described as “the very wrath of love,” (a credit to you, Mr. Shakespeare).
Imagined costume sketches for Hester and Sir William Collyer, based on their appearance in the performance.
The set design (Tom Scutt) beautifully amplifies a sense of the loneliness of its characters. We see not only Hester, but also, dimly through the paper-thin walls, the lives of her neighbours overhead and next door. The closeness with which the tenement’s residents live is claustrophobic, yet also, in part, consoling. The sense of being watched, of others listening in and nudging each other, is a constant worry to Hester: ‘Voices carry on the stairs in this house.’ Yet the neighbours’ proximity is, after all, what saves her as they stumble in on her attempt and clumsily re-establish normality. By the end of the day, Hester finds a curious and moving kinship with Mr Miller – his rootless solitude matches hers, and together, they reinforce each other’s paper-thin hopes.
It’s a captivating play – bleak and tumultuous but ultimately hopeful. It ends with Hester shakily making herself dinner and taking the first life-affirming bites (an unscripted addition from director Carrie Cracknell). Together with lighting designer Guy Hoare, and movement director Ruth Myers, Cracknell captures a sombre period of British history, thinly varnished with post-war austerity. Cracknell describes the characters as living in ‘a sort of vacuum.’ The adrenaline-rush of the war has ended and so the atmosphere ‘is very much defined by this odd sort of calm, the flatness of the post war-experience.’
The supporting cast is strong. Tom Burke as ex-fighter pilot Freddie has the disarmed and disarming charm of a man out of his depth in a society that no longer has a need for him. Peter Sullivan makes Hester’s husband a younger, more attractive figure than usual, which makes Hester’s rejection of him all the more striking – Rattigan claimed after all that the play’s prime concern was ‘the illogicality of passion.’ Marion Bailey as the landlady exudes a well-meaning obliviousness, with flashes of accidental and somewhat cryptic wisdom (‘You’re my favourite tenant’, she says, straight after Hester’s suicide attempt. ‘One always seems to prefer nice people to good people, don’t you think?’).
I enjoyed Stuart Earl’s sound design too, which at one point featured strains of The Flamingo’s bittersweet ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, slowed to a ghostly half-speed and which went echoing through my mind long after the play finished. Haunting too was the very end of the live recording – the burst of audience applause as the performers took their bows. I found myself clapping, instinctively, suddenly very much aware of being in my bedroom and desperately missing the energy of the aftermath of a theatre performance – the audience tumbling out onto the street, their conversations still full of the world of the play. Arts venues have been hit hard by the pandemic. Now, more than ever, we need to celebrate the essential role of our theatres and support their return. Pieces like this, which dramatise, with sensitivity and energy, the experience of being never-quite-alone, demand to be shared.
Watch The Deep Blue Sea from the NT Live archive, at https://www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/.
 Cracknell in an interval feature from the 2016 NT Live broadcast of The Deep Blue Sea, interviewed by Kirsty Lang.
 Rattigan, in Geoffrey Wansell, Terrence Rattigan (London: Fourth Estate, 1995). ISBN 978-1-85702-201-8.