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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
National Theatre At Home and YouTube   Summer 2020

The National Theatre At Home series continues with this 2016 revival of Terence Rattigan's 1952 drama, and it turns out to be a rare case of the broadcast version being noticeably weaker than the live production.

Like all Rattigan's best plays, The Deep Blue Sea is ultimately about the British cultural disease of the Stiff Upper Lip, a hesitation or inability to cope with strong emotion.

Here a respectable middle class married woman fell overpoweringly in love with a younger man and ran off with him, only to discover that his feelings did not match hers.

The play actually opens with a failed suicide attempt, but we are quickly directed away from the soap opera level with the revelation that neither the lover nor the husband she left is a villain. Both are honourable, well-meaning and loving men who simply do not and cannot experience emotion on the level she does.

It is she who is the freak in modern (i.e. 1950) Britain, and she will have to live with the pain of feeling life more fully than anyone else around her.  Meanwhile, the very most that is offered to the men is a brief, frightening glimpse of their own emotional inadequacy.

In reviewing the stage production HERE in 2016, I admired the way director Carrie Cracknell and actress Helen McCrory did not let this become a star vehicle, the combination of a controlled performance by McCrory and more attention to the men making the play almost as much about them as her.

I particularly noted the sympathy the production showed to Tom Burke's lover, a nice, ordinary, no-shallower-than-most bloke who was even able to stretch himself to an awareness that the woman he loved deserved better than he; and to Peter Sullivan's husband, a man defined, limited but ultimately redeemed by just trying to do the proper thing.

Despite the use of multiple cameras and close-ups, some of these insights into the men seem to be lost in the video version, and we see them too much from the outside. This pushes our attention back onto Helen McCrory, whose subdued performance can't quite carry the evening.

Nick Fletcher gives strong support as a helpful neighbour, but the video version makes us particularly aware of how pointlessly overcomplicated Tom Scott's multilevel stage design is pointlessly because nothing really happens on the other levels.

Watching this Deep Blue Sea you might be able to see where the play wants to take you in psychological insights and emotional depths, and onstage the production sometimes did. But here you will have to fill a lot of it in for yourself.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Deep Blue Sea  2020