One of our favourite annual treats is to enjoy a weekend in Chichester with friends and family, seeing a couple of shows, having a lovely lunch in the Minerva Brasserie, followed by late night sharing boards in the Minerva Grill, and a scrummy Sunday breakfast at the Spires Café. Well, we did all of those things last weekend. It was great.
You want more detail? I guess I should be more specific about the plays we saw. For the matinee, we had tickets to see Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the second Chichester production of this play in eight years; we saw Philip Franks’ production in 2011, and it was thoroughly engrossing; a simple tale, told simply. But I have a memory that it was swamped by the largesse of the Festival Theatre; would a more intimate production in the Minerva be more successful? (Answer: Yes.)
The play was first produced in 1952, at a time when Britain was still attempting to shake off the drabness of Second World War rationing, drabness and general gloom. Men had come back from the war with what we would now know as PTSD, many struggling to find a way to fit back into life and with many women accordingly finding it difficult to cope with their menfolk. Clearly, unless you were a) well-off and b) remarkably well adjusted, it was a tense time for all. Whether it was in a sudden blaze of passion or a slowly-burning sense of growing desire we’re never really sure, but what we do know is that Hester Collyer had thrown away her life as a judge’s wife, with all its comfort, status and solidity, and run off with a ne’er-do-well alcoholic, Freddie Page, who’d been a pilot in the war.
But when the fun, danger and ardour of their affair starts to wane, there’s not much left for Hester to enjoy in life, and the play, famously, starts with her being rescued from a suicide attempt (by gassing herself in front of the fire) by her landlady and neighbours. If she’d had put a shilling in the meter, she’d be dead. The rest of the play examines Hester’s life over the course of one day; from a semi-reconciliation with her husband, desperate niggling arguments with her boyfriend, and reaching an understanding with another of the residents, Mr Miller (not Doctor, please), in whom she sees a fellow recipient of life’s great booby-prize. When it’s time to turn the lights out at the end of the day, will she resist the temptation to make good her suicide attempt of the previous night? If you don’t know the answer to that, I’m not going to tell you!
This is one of those plays that it’s impossible to update; in fact, the stronger you can build up that distinct post-war, 1950s poverty-filled London gloom, the better. Peter McKintosh’s set successfully conjures up a claustrophobic prison of a flat at the top of the stairs in a big multiple-occupancy house, where the landlady Mrs Elton (a nicely judged performance by Denise Black) spends morning, noon and night in pinny and housecoat, perpetually attending to the needs of her tenants, hearing their secrets and then blabbing about them to the neighbours. The all-important gas fire sits starkly against one side of the stage, an ugly, functional installation with no pretence to homely cosiness, quietly reminding us all of its power to end a life.
This new production stars Nancy Carroll as Hester Collyer, in an excellent performance that makes you feel that, if only the stars had aligned slightly differently, this Hester would have had a life of glamour and refinement. With an air of calm, resigned resilience, it’s a remarkably spirited portrayal of a suicidal character – she seems to get over it all rather quickly, and rises to the challenges of the day with surprising strength. By contrast, Hadley Fraser’s Freddie Page cuts a much more pathetic figure; a spoilt brat of a wastrel who’s relied on his looks to get him through but when times get tough has no inner resources to back it up. It’s another excellent performance, bringing out all the character’s immaturity and irresponsibility, as he organises long drinking sessions with his mates and refuses to take the blame for his contribution to Hester’s unhappiness. When the first Act finished I wanted to shout down to the stage, Leave him, Hester, he’s not worth it, hun, but I’m not sure if she would have taken my advice.
Reliable Chichester stalwart Matthew Cottle gives a strong, unsentimental performance as Miller, the once-doctor who still helps with medical advice in the household despite no longer being allowed to practise; although in seedy 1952 North West London, a resident medic would always be in demand. There’s also a toe-curlingly enjoyable scene between Hester and Ralph Davis’ Philp Welch, one of those agonisingly patronising moments when a younger man tries to explain to an older person where they’ve gone wrong in life and what they can do to turn things around. Keeping a lid on her frustration and annoyance, you sense it’s all Hester can do not to stuff the gas tube up his nose and shove a shilling in for good measure.
This production received generally excellent reviews and I can see why. Although the pace of the play is quite slow, the attention to detail is impressive, and the commitment and dignity of the performances is a delight, even if the horrors of what they’re going through isn’t. Its final performance was last Saturday night and I don’t know if it’s going to have a life hereafter…but it was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking production.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan