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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Deep Blue Sea
Almeida Theatre and BBC 1994, YouTube Summer 2020

My watching the National Theatre's current online broadcast of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea inspired YouTube's algorithms to dig up and recommend this 1994 version, adapted by the BBC from an Almeida Theatre production.

Worth seeing on its own merits, it serves as an interesting counterpart to the newer one, often strong where the other is weak and weak where it is strong.

Rattigan's story is of a respectable middle-class woman who leaves her husband for a younger man, only to discover that neither man has the emotional depth to be able to love as fully and passionately as she.

The subject, as in many of Rattigan's plays, is the British cultural fear of emotion, the stiff-upper-lip that makes a whole people either afraid of real emotion, incapable of it, or overwhelmed when it hits them.

Penelope Wilton is perhaps best known today from TV's Downton Abbey, where she played the charity-minded older woman constantly sparring with Maggie Smith, their weapons of choice being the arched eyebrow and genteel put-down. She has primarily been a stage actress, with a long career with the National Theatre and the West End.

What Wilton brings to every role she plays is the impression of a quick mind, a deep intelligence and a bemused ironic distance. She invests her character here with those signature qualities, and therein lie both her success and failure in the role.

It is clear from the first scenes that this woman is superior in character and intelligence to anyone around her. But it is also inescapable that she is stronger, and you will never really believe in her suicide attempt or that she is helplessly overcome by her passions.

Colin Firth, looking uncomfortable in a silly moustache, plays the lover as an amiable bloke who is just totally out of his emotional depth. Firth is more successful than most in communicating the man's awareness of his own limitations, and his chagrin and pain at facing the fact of his inadequacy.

Ian Holm allows the husband considerably less self-discovery, making the man hide behind the mask of moral outrage through most of the play. Only in his final scene does he allow a fleeting vision of the man's own failure to cross his face.

Director Karel Reisz keeps things flowing through the 90 minute broadcast, and the BBC camera placement and editing are expert. But the YouTube upload looks like a copy of a copy of a videotape, with too frequent lapses of picture and sound.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  1994 The Deep Blue Sea 2020