Review: The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre, London)

Following their successful production of Medea back in 2014 Carrie Cracknell and Helen McCrory have returned to the National with a new production of The Deep Blue Sea. This time around in the Lyttleton, this is another play that focuses on the desperation of a woman being preyed on by internal forces.
But can this live up to the reputation set by Medea and does it have the power of Mccrorys chilling earlier performance?

Direction by Carrie Cracknell – Cracknell has proven her chops when it comes to showing desperation. In the early production of Medea at the National (of which it’s impossible to not compare) she showed a woman so tormented by her inner turmoil that she reverted to murder. This time around we’re dealing with suicide not murder but every aspect of this production has been geared towards showing the isolation of the lead character Hester Collyer. The long silences and the overall gloom of the production help focus our attention on Collyer, and Cracknell does a great job of making us feel a part of her isolated world. It’s the small touches of the production that really help finish it, from the billowing curtains at times of tension to the silhouettes of neighbouring residents going about their daily business with little interaction with Collyer. It all combines to show us what a small, enclosed and lonely world the protagonist is living in.

Writing by Terence Rattigan – Now here’s where my problem lies with the production. I couldn’t help thinking throughout that there just wasn’t enough of it to justify the length, whether or not it was the result of the direction or whether or not it is just light on content I’m not sure, but when leaving the theatre I felt like an hour could have been cut with little effect. That’s not to say that it was bad but just unfulfilling. The other reason it didn’t click with me is that for a play about inner turmoil and about dealing with loneliness, the language itself feels unnatural. Interactions between characters come across as disingenuous, and as a result the production didn’t have the emotional kick that I wanted. In fact oddly, the most haunting moments of the production were the silent ones when language wasn’t needed to tell the story. The cast did a great job of delivering the play but I can’t help feel that the primary issue lies with the source material.

Set design by Tom Scutt and Lighting design by Guy Hoare – The design is a visual treat, perfectly representing both the title of the play The Deep Blue Sea and the mindset of Hester. A full apartment and those around it, the structure is an imposing one using the Lyttelton stage to its fullest. With a blue hue cast across the stage throughout, the two combine to give a claustrophobic feel that bears down on Hester’s isolated life. The effect of the layers of apartments and silhouettes cast by supporting characters implies a world that could go on forever. Figures appear out of nowhere and go about their own business, and the effect of set and lighting working together is hypnotic, perfectly representing the feeling of being deep under water.

The Deep Blue Sea, photo by Richard Hupert Smith
The Deep Blue Sea, photo by Richard Hupert Smith

Sound design by Peter Rice – The sound in this production is far more scaled back than Cracknell’s aforementioned Medea. There’s an element of the low rumbling that comes with modern productions of plays, but Rice more readily uses external noises to evoke the world outside. Like the visual design though, everything is muffled and unclear, which works to create the sinking feeling and overall tone. Also keep an eye out for the loudest frying of an egg you’ll ever hear – here used as a sound of last minute hope. Who’d have though…?

The cast – Once again this Cracknell production is all about Helen McCrory. She was cheated out of an Olivier nomination in Medea, so is here to give it another shot. And it’s safe to say she is very good; one scene where she is on the phone to her missing lover being truly harrowing and desperate. She’s a gifted actress and portraying heartache and despair is clearly he forte. But it would be unfair to say that this is one woman show, and both Peter Sullivan as William Collyer and Tom Burke as Freddie Page are well matched as her love interests. Nick Fletcher as the anti-doctor Mr Miller is also perfectly placed as the voice of reason guiding proceedings along – an ever watchful eye.

  • Helen McCrory (Hester Collyer)
  • Peter Sullivan (William Collyer)
  • Tom Burke (Freddie Page)
  • Nick Fletcher (Mr Miller)
  • Marion Bailey (Mrs Elton)

Verdict: ★★★★☆

This is a cracking cast and it has some cracking direction and design, but I had a problem with the source material that pulled me out of the production’s grip and meant that I left a little unsatisfied.

And the view…

Circle, row D, seat 21. The view was nice and clear and surprisingly the sound was good for the Lyttelton, which normally suffers from bad acoustics. Leg room was plentiful, but I did suffer from a bit of back ache from the downwards angle and sharp rake.

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