Desperately seeking (interesting) beauty

Hedda Gabler. Showed until 21st March 2017 at National Theatre

When Ruth Wilson was interviewed for the Guardian someone asked:

‘I have seen Hedda Gabler three times and I’m looking to top that up with the NT Live. Never really got Ibsen before, but your interpretation of her was stunning – you have an amazing gift. Do you see a bit of Hedda in yourself, or is that a mean question?’

Ms Wilson replied:

‘It’s a bit of a mean question, because she’s not a very nice person, but yes, I do see a bit of myself in Hedda. I see a bit of myself in all my roles. I think she’s quite funny, but that’s my weird brain. I understand the frustration of feeling deeply and people not understanding you, and I get deeply frustrated at times – but I would never make the choices she makes. I hope I wouldn’t find myself in that situation – trapped in something I despised.’

The frustration of feeling deeply and not bring understood can feel exacerbated a hundredfold in a world which prominently parades Trump lack of brain cells and legs-it Brexit. There are so many things large and small to be angry and frustrated by, so many everyday inequalities and injustices, that occasionally it can feel difficult and exhausting just to deal with the emotion provoked. Maybe this is why I loved Ruth Wilson interpretation of Hedda Gabler so much.

Hedda has married an academic, Kyle Soller’s Tesman, afraid that she is losing the bloom of her youth and needing to settle down, tiring of her “chaotic” life.  She is restless, unhappy in her married life, will surely “die of boredom” with her husband the “assistant”. Ruth Wilson bringing the humour here in her heavily sardonic lines. Hedda lives in a house she never loved, although claimed to falsely in a rare moment of pity for the romantic knots Tesman found himself in, leading to engagement, wedding, honeymoon and “whatever hell lies after”. Academics are boring, she exclaims, she has no time for her husband’s papers and interests, the parties she was promised are postponed as the couple find themselves in debt from their extravagance. And although she may or may not be pregnant, it’s clear Hedda is not feeling maternal: “I don’t want to make something that makes demands” she retorts, capturing that the concept of motherhood for her is a depressing continuum of need and unfulfilled want. She throws continual sarcasm and teasing criticism at her husband who shakes it off with the occasionally bewildered air of a dampened dog.

Gabler is Hedda’s father’s name, and she is characterised as her dead father’s daughter much more so than her husband’s wife.  She keeps his pistols on display and likes shooting into clear blue skies. As she holds the pistol up to the audience and to what turns out to be her former lover we brace ourselves for the shot and the jump. Hedda seems a girl craving secret knowledge, like the power of tempting back alcoholism which she wields over ex-lover Chukwudi Iwuji ‘s Lovborg in glee.

“Well, if there was an award for best use of tomato juice! that would win it” I overheard a man share jovially as he left the theatre. He is referring to an awful scene towards the close of the play between Ruth Wilson’s Hedda Gabler and Rafe Spall’s Judge Brack in which Hedda is painfully degraded and humiliated with calmly brutal ease by the judge. My position a few rows from the front made it even more uncomfortable to watch up close this complete crushing of Hedda’s fragile character. It is a secret scene shared only with us, the helpless bystanders as the audience. There is something horrible about watching a torment that you are powerless to intervene in, particularly when it feels like a performance and enactment of forces at play in the very real world, leading to a tragic action driven by a feeling of complete hopelessness which is actively enforced and encouraged by another person (or persons – is it a suicide pact?). In a way that is quite rare for my experience of this kind of theatre I really understand how we reach the final scene. It feels like Hedda’s desperate last grasp at reclaiming beauty for herself following others (like Lovborg’s) failure to provide it for her.

This yearning for beauty is striking too in Hedda’s fit of activity in an early scene as she scrambles around the stage stapling flowers to the wall, an attempt at making her home environment beautiful which is temporal from the beginning. The flowers droop and fade, the only other decoration two pistols on the wall. Flicking the blinds back and forth in a bored frenzy as golden light filters through them, Ruth Wilson’s Hedda is much like a caged wild animal. She paces restlessly barefoot around the room, yet with a grace and presence that makes the nightgown she wears seem like an evening dress in those moments she makes the effort to be appealing.

The play is entrancing and Ruth Wilson is exceptionally and without doubt at the heart of and the highlight of this production, every bit as mesmerising as I thought she would be from watching her plucky Jane in the BBC’s Jane Eyre and her shiny-eyed intriguing entirely unpredictable psychopath Alice in Luther. She entirely deserved the Olivier nomination for Best Actress. This is Ivo van Hove’s National Theatre debut and it was my (if depressing) theatrical highlight of the first quarter of 2017. And not just because the tomato juice.

 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds. If it were a bet you wouldn’t take it.”

At the Old Vic until Saturday 29th April 2017

**** (4 stars)

As much as I love a moment of quiet contemplation, there is something awful to me about a forced focus on the inescapable factuality of one’s own mortality. This is of course a recurring theme of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The clue is in the title really. In this 50th anniversary celebration directed by David Leveaux Daniel Radcliffe is Rosencrantz and Joshua McGuire Guildenstern. Both are brilliant, balancing the play’s bleak introspection, mostly delivered by Radcliffe, with a sparky Chuckle Brothers cluelessness.  Death is not being – it is being trapped in a box without any awareness, not asleep, not awake. Could it even be being trapped on a boat on route to England, with nowhere to go? The slip into humour in this particular musing characterises the duality which is at the heart throughout: “Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking: Well, at least I’m not dead.” Daniel Radcliffe also delivers the lines which ask, at what point as children do we have the shattering realisation that we must die? Rosencrantz does not himself remember having such a horrible thought.  We are then born with the intuition that we are mortal, with the knowledge “there’s only one direction and time is its only measure.” It is a recurring joke that Radcliffe’s character’s memory is rather hopeless – he can’t remember what happened the morning they received the royal summons, what he has been instructed to do, his name even. He is comically slow to catch on to his relatively quicker witted counterpart’s suggestions (“you’re quicker than your friend”, the Player declares, as he tries to squeeze gold out of the pair for a performance when they first meet on the road). David Haigh as the Player is my favourite, a confident thespian with a powerful assertiveness  herding and directing his unruly, underpaid mishmash of players, cajoling attractive female substitute Alfred  in and out of his skirt on demand and bellowing “I need to learn my lines” at McGuire’s waffle.

As the players act out the bloodbath at the end of Hamlet, slumped in a pile neat leftovers from the previous scene, the macabre music reminds me a little of The Threepenny Opera. They finish with a dramatic flourish to be proud of, shadows cast against the white curtain – closing as creepy shadow puppets, fading figments of a performance, to die and be reborn in new roles. The best actors play dead over and over. The Player acts out his own death in fact and bursts back to life amidst jumps and surprise (“you had me fooled”). The players act out the tragedy in silent, brilliantly lit drama – it gets even better when the lights are cut for the Player to make a point to his audience, the spectacle mocked as things get a bit too frisky between Gertrude and the King. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand beneath the players acting out their own deaths. It is painful seeing them observe the pair’s collapse into sacks. Then the next scene opens with them waking in the very same spot. Death is guaranteed for them from the beginning, the royal summons and subsequent actions arbitrary: “there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow we missed it”.

As well as black intensity there are moments of for me much needed comedy, still intertwined with death mostly of  course. Seeing Hamlet dragging Polonius off to bury, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern excitedly form a barrier with their belts, determined not to let their ‘friend’ pass and instead to halt him in his tracks and demand explanation. They are completely unnoticed by Hamlet who neatly turns off the stage and entirely evades them. “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else” Stoppard says. This play is itself a new window presenting Hamlet from the perspective of two peripheral characters who are interchangeable even to each other, exchanging names and directions with ease.  Radcliffe’s matter of fact humour makes me chuckle (Guildenstern: “You can’t not be on a boat” Rosencrantz: “I’ve frequently not been on boats”). England is a “conspiracy of cartographers” and  Hamlet could be “stark raving sane”.

Anna Fleischle’s design certainly makes the most of the Old Vic’s cavernous space. The set of painted clouds makes me feel it could all be a bit of a dream even as the actors bow and Radcliffe neatly retrieves roses thrown on stage, while Harry Potter fans queue down the road in hope of signatures. Time may be moving forward in the only direction it knows but the stage is also shaped by the magic that has come before,  the play itself performed on the very same stage 50 years ago.

 

 

 

Dream Girls Will Never Leave You

At the Savoy theatre, until 6th May 2017

NOMINATED FOR BEST NEW MUSICAL, OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN MUSIC (HENRY KRIEGER), BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL (AMBER RILEY) AND BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL (ADAM J BERNARD) – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

I saw Dream Girls before Christmas and the sparkle of the Broadway musical’s UK premiere  seems an equally suitable antidote to any 2017 final dregs of winter gloom. The glitter and gleam of the onstage dresses, suits, superstar smiles, stage curtains and dancing lights combined with the beauty of the Savoy theatre are visually delighting and a treat for my magpie eye (thank you set designer Tim Hatley and Gregg Barnes for the costumes). What really adds the true sparkle of course are the musical performances. Those familiar with the 2006 film adaptation, starring Jennifer Hudson as Effie and Beyonce as Deena, will be tapping their feet along as we flit from dressing rooms to stages in an ever energetic dash to stardom. What started as a Broadway show 35 years ago is I think overdue a turn at the West End.

Glee graduate Amber Riley is stunning as Effie, her vocals effortlessly, powerfully brilliant. Together with Liisi LaFontaine as Deena and Ibinabo Jack as Lorrell they make up the trio of aspiring music stars, thought to be based on Diana Ross and The Supremes. Adam J Bernard as Jimmy throws in comic quips While Tyrone Huntley offers a helping of family sincerity as C. C. White.

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Interpretations vary from the film. Personally I was initially thrown by the new take on Listen, which is significantly altered from Beyonce’s version written for the film. This version is my favourite of the soundtrack as the character asserts herself and chooses to find her own way and make her own choices instead of sacrificing them for Curtis’s (played onstage by Joe Aarson Reid) preferences and possessiveness:

“the time has come for my dreams to be heard, They will not be pushed aside and turned, Into your own, all ’cause you won’t listen… I’ve tried and tried, To say what’s on my mind, You should have known, Now I’m done believing you, You don’t know what I’m feeling, I’m more than what, You’ve made of me, I followed the voice, you gave to me, But now I’ve got to find my own”

Although my ears wanted to hear this version it was still possible to enjoy the musical’s reimagining in its own right and context as part of the stageplay. Similarly And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going lacks a little of the defiant attitude of Jennifer Hudson’s version and is at times breathless with a tearful begging desperation which is not quite as satisfying. The promise “you’re going to love me” to her audience and fans however remains a gutsy and entirely accurate assertion.

Casey Nicholaw’s production is full of energy, colour and wonderful noise. The struggle for racial equality in the music business and it’s part within the American black civil rights movement isn’t given much attention, taking a little potential depth away, but this is a feel good, glitzy night out with the girls which will have you humming all the way home.

 

I want magic! Maxine Peake certainly gave us plenty in Streetcar Named Desire (at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 15 October 2016)

Sarah Frankcom took over as director at the Royal Exchange in 2014. Her collaboration with Maxine Peake as Hamlet is probably most well-known. Peake’s Masque of Anarchy performance for the anniversary of Waterloo, and in The Skriker last summer, are also both memorable for me, not least out of admiration for Maxine Peake’s powerfully moving performance in a chapel full of candles which had me fainting away with the heat and bustle of watchers. Whilst I perhaps am not one of those physically strong, hardy women comfortably able to deal with adverse physical conditions with no problems, I got the feeling Maxine was – she was tough, unafraid, a direct, straight-talking realist taken to the stage and the most unlikely person to faint away at a few too many candles and gentle shoves. So it was initially a surprise to hear she was playing famously feminine and fragile Blanche. An exciting surprise, obviously, and one I quickly booked to experience.

In Streetcar Maxine Peake proved with the greatest ease, not that it really needed proving, that yes she is a hell of an actress and yes she really can tackle anything. In Sarah Frankcom’s interview with the Guardian she describes Streetcar as “a very scary play” but that it’s “good to scare yourself”. It’s clear from the range of roles Maxine Peake has taken on that she too is unafraid of a challenge. Evidently scary is good as this is by far my favourite yet of the pair’s productions.

Maxine Peake makes a glamorous Blanche, complete with short blonde curls and dark sunglasses she arrives in town as Stella’s (Sharon Duncan Brewster’s) well-dressed sister from Mississippi. Nothing is quite as it seems though. Blanche is like a magpie, her interest in lover Mitch (Youssef Kerkour) sparked by the gleam of his silver cigarette case. Blanche’s suitcase gives the desired impression of money and taste – emptied full of glitter, fur, sequinned or floral dresses, a heart shaped velvet jewellery box dangling strings of imitation pearls and gold bangles. The fur stole is a long ago gift, the accessories inexpensive, costume jewellery. Not so to dim-witted suspicious Stanley of course (Stella’s husband, superbly played by Ben Batt), to whom a sparkly dress is “solid gold” in its shine. “This is the money from your plantation” he insists to Stella. “Money just goes… places” Blanche offers vaguely, but honestly. Evidently she is not much of a saver. The stage set for the Kowalski’s home is like a budget Sims house with the walls collapsed and fluorescent floor lights acting as wall divides. As a horrified Blanche repeats, there are only 2 rooms. It’s easy to believe the two are sisters from their fierce care and continual needling of each other.

Blanche dislikes harsh, bare light, dressing the light bulb in her room with a lantern, and choosing to meet Mitch in the flattering dusk of evening light. She shies away from full, unforgiving illuminations of her face and continually frets that she is “losing her looks”. Her age is eternally 21 on her birthday cake. “Soft people have to shine and glow” she says, and such shimmering is something that seems harder to Blanche with age. This and her demand for magic rather than reality suggests a show, an act, a forced glitter and floatiness that is really a façade for something unseen. Maxine Peake does give Blanche a hidden grittiness. We see a transparent attempt at secrecy in the alcohol addiction Blanche nurses. She claims “one is my limit” to Stella, having just neatly necked a shot of whisky upon arrival. The cover slips easily and the story changes – later in conversation with Mitch after a night out the limit is “two”. Perhaps what makes Maxine Peake’s Blanche special is her ability to effortlessly deliver to us a Blanche who is genuinely mixed and unstraightforward. She starts off the play as a sort of survivor who is hyper critical of her surroundings and sister’s life choices to protect herself and her own vulnerability. She is not just a woman off the rails and dominated by addiction, to be pitied and ignored, but presents a challenge of morality and fabrication to unravel – what is untruth and what is real – whatever it is Peake’s Blanche is a character you entirely believe in.

Blanche is not the only character in the play who is performing. Mitch seems sensitive and sweet at first, even if his proposal does whiff of desperation rather than romance: “You and I both need someone. Maybe we could be that person to each other.” These are lines which conjure a relationship of necessity based on an indiscriminate need for some sort of constant human company, rather than something more romantically specific. When he later dismisses Blanche as “not clean” enough to bring back to his mother that is the brutal end of that. And then of course there is Stanley. His brutal strength is also veiled, and even when open for all to see it can still be ignored. The loud noise of Blanche’s music sends Stanley into a furiously well-acted frenzy, glimpses of a brutal bestiary glaring through, in reaction to a strength and threat he sees in Blanche, cannot understand and so tries to quash with violence and even rape.

According to Frankcom Blanche is “one of the most iconic female characters,  and yet the great danger is she’s seen as just another bad, mad, sad woman – what do I see in it that might be different?” What seems to characterise the play for me is Blanche’s cry: “I want magic”. Magic is transformative, it makes possible things that are otherwise impossible and unachievable, it turns pumpkins into carriages and mice into horsemen and showers you with every possible something you could imagine. Blanche creates her own sort of magic with her own illumination of the world, an interpretation which is not always in line with other people’s moral standards. To see her taken away to an asylum at the end feels very real and heart-breaking. The magic is broken, the spell is over and the audience awakes from an American dream delusion into a hungover and confused reality.

Celebrating London Cocktail Week toasting No Man’s Land with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

Wyndhams Theatre until Saturday 17 December

IAN MCKELLEN NOMINATED FOR BEST ACTOR – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

I last saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on stage together in 2013 in Sean Mathias’s production of Waiting For Godot. Here the three are reunited again, this time taking on Harold Pinter’s 1973 play No Man’s Land.  Together the pair are mesmerising and make this one of those performances to remember.

It’s impossible to take your eyes away from McKellen as he skirts around the stage, seemingly silver-tongued and shifty as poetic Spooner, whilst Stewart gives a menacing, sinister edge to wealthy writer Hirst. McKellen and Stewart’s humour and natural, charismatic friendship gives a comic sparkle to this production, especially when combined with Pinter’s eloquent, edging on uncomfortable dialogue. The language is a highlight, the tone funny but bitter, scornful one-liners seeing the audience in fits, such as Briggs’s shout “the best time to drink champagne is before lunch, you c**t”.

At first it seems Hirst and Spooner are strangers. Having just met in a West Hampstead pub, Hirst has invited Spooner back to his house for a drink. The two elderly men knock back whisky “as it is”, with Spooner cradling the bottle to his jacket, keen to take advantage of Hirst’s plentiful bar. There is perhaps a homoerotic undercurrent, talk of walking Hampstead Heath “with expectations” in their youth. A favourite scene of mine sees the pair taking tea the day after, now apparently old acquaintances from university. Between sips and stirs of milk we see a hilarious exchange of romantic misdemeanours recollected from younger days, stories interjected with comical exclamations of “I don’t believe it” and “outrageous!” McKellen’s body language, expression and incensed handling of his tea cup saying everything as Stewart speaks.

McKellen and Stewart are joined by Owen Teale as Briggs and Damien Molony as Foster. Between the four men the silent power exchanges are continual, felt in the fetching of whisky, serving of breakfast, even the movement of furniture – from Hirst crawling out of the room on hands and knees after the night’s drinking, to Spooner falling to his knees and begging at the close of the play. Set and costume design is the work of Stephen Brimson Lewis. Hirst’s single luxurious armchair breathes the command of comfortable living, forcing others to stand or hover around him, or sit on the edge of the carpeted circle on straight-backed, wooden chairs which move round the stage erratically as they are claimed by changing occupants. The inner circle of the floor is black and white patterned, the furniture positioned around it like the changing hands of a clock face. In fact Hirst’s whole room is circular. I feel sometimes as if the circle of the floor is about to start spinning wildly off into time.

The sense of time is definitely confused in no man’s land. When Hirst returns to the room the same evening he asks the time, wondering if he went to sleep in the afternoon (the best time to sleep, apparently, while others get ready for dinner) and the next day when it seems afternoon Hirst asks for the curtains to be drawn and lamps lit. There is almost a stasis to this play’s time. The two men are in the autumn of their lives, repeating no man’s land as something which “remains forever, icy and silent”. These men are part of a post-war generation of soldiers – Hirst’s clipped enquiry “Did you have a good war?” tries to integrate conflict as a part of tight-lipped polite society to be enquired about and dismissed. In the first scene Spooner explains where he derives his strength (which for some he says is learned, feigned) and asks, has Hirst ever been loved? He replies, probably not. There is a sad edge of isolation to this sort of “strength”, Spooner mockingly titled “Mr Friend” by Briggs and Foster, who arrive later and are suspicious of his relationship to Hirst. Upon reappearing Hirst appears not to know him and angrily shouts “You are not my friend!” – for his friends all look out at him from the pages of his photo album, they are nameless, silent, parts of history.

Playing with words signals the end – “let us change the subject for the last time”. If the subject and time is now winter then it will be winter forever. We see a branch reaching out from the CGI projected trees of Hampstead Heath, and we are reminded of when the interval was announced with the words: “You know what it’s like when you’re in a room with the light on and then suddenly the light goes out? I’ll show you. It’s like this.” Darkness. And then the applause.

 

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour go on tour

Transferring to Duke of York’s Theatre May – September 2017

Playing at the Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre until Saturday 1st October 2016

NOMINATED FOR BEST NEW COMEDY AND BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

In a riot of shrieks, singing and Hooch drinking six teenage girls from Oban set out on a school trip to Edinburgh to take part in a choir competition, accompanied by teachers who we never see, but hear through the girls’ glorious imitation of a whole range of characters. They morph into barmen, shopkeepers, infuriated nuns as the day unfolds and they trip haphazardly through a series of encounters. They tackle a whole range of voices and personalities brilliantly, the faultless switching between schoolgirl and bouncer refusing entry at the door of a club a highlight amongst many.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (the Lady the Virgin Mary) as the title and name of the imaginary convent school is just the first of many chuckles, the girls’ school year seeing a record number of teenage pregnancies, and nicknamed the Virgin Megastore. The show arrives in London after a sell-out run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, where this National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre co-production won several awards. Alan Warner’s novel from the nineties The Sopranos has been adapted into play form by Lee Hall, also responsible for Billy Elliot and Warhorse, and teaming up with Vicky Featherstone as director. The music has been arranged and supervised by Martin Lowe, also responsible for musical Once, and is a joy – ranging wildly from the choral opening notes of Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes” to the toe-tapping, mike-screeching rendition of ELO’s  “Mr Blue Sky”, complete with band throughout.

Amidst the flaming sambuca shots, tequila slammers and endless Hooch beers there are moments of quieter contemplation too – as popular girl Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) considers the percentage of our lives left unlived (“we are just a tiny percentage of what we could have been”). Or as survivor Orla (Joanne McGuinness) buys shoes with her “cancer money” for best friend Manda (Kirsty MacLaren), the girl who bathes in milk powder for a luxury – calling it a “Cleopatra bath” – with her dad using the same bathwater afterwards. Seemingly good girl Kay with university aspirations (Karen Fishwick) isn’t without her own share of drama either.

At first the strong accents may be a little hard to decipher but it’s well worth sticking with these girls for the full uncensored rollercoaster of teenage discovery – grabbing life as it comes and wringing experiences out of a world which can be unfair, bewildering and beautiful.

Somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea 

​Playing at the National until Wednesday 21 September

Carrie Cracknell’s new production of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea is the best thing I’ve seen at the National this year. And not just because I was sitting a couple rows from the front, seats down from a fellow theatre-goer who looked very much like Billie Piper (currently wowing in Yerma at the Young Vic) Thank you  £5 entry pass tickets! 

I do think though that being so close to the stage, seeing the facial expressions and body language in all of their detail, only intensified the emotion of the performance for me. I was sucked in from the very opening note of the music, as a third floor of a boarding house in Ladbroke Grove, London, is revealed. Through the ghost walls of Tom Scutt’s design we see shadows of neighbours upstairs, making the bed, leaving the house, slamming doors, waiting in doorways. The walls are  all duck egg blue with darkening shades of blue. Deepening the watery allusions I feel there is something akin to the sometimes surreal sound of being underwater as the play progresses. The music playing on the record player lends a sense of closed privacy, amidst a sort of deep quiet, like when the loud sound of the rain is shut out as Freddie closes the windows to consult the friend he has invited round for a heart to heart. 

Lovers Hester and Freddie are at the heart of the story. If it is a competition for the audience’s affections and allegiance then Helen McCrory as Hester Collyer wins my vote. She is familiar from appearing in 3 of the Harry Potter films as Narcissa Malfoy. When we first meet Hester she is dragged by her neighbours from an unlit gas fire, somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea (as she explains “when you’re between any kind of devil and the deep blue sea, sometimes the deep blue sea seems very enticing”) Hester has, controversially for 1950s England, escaped marriage with respectable, affluent Lord Collyer and ran away with lover Freddie, played by Tom Burke, recently in the BBC’s War and Peace and announced to play Cormoran Strike in their forthcoming adaptation of the Robert Galbraith novels. Freddie has dark floppy hair, and seems self absorbed in his emotions rather like a child. He was a pilot in the war and drinks whisky like water.

Once rescued Helen McCrory is languid and smoking in her dressing gown, curls of cigarette smoke rising from her sharp edged elegance. She is quietly powerful, mesmerising and memorable delivering a truly stunning and highly emotional performance. The lovers Freddie and Hester seem to be out of their depth, so much is clear from the near tragedy of the opening scene. There is the  thrall of passion but not the love Hester yearns for.   When we later hear the line describing her relationship with lover Freddie: “You and I are death to each other” we have already seen the evidence of how true these words could be. Freddie starts to flounder. While Freddie is harder to relate to he does struggle to offer a defence of his character – “I’m not a sadist” he whines “I don’t enjoy causing people pain.” Yet is he capable of returning the kind of love Hester gives? When Freddie returns having been for a walk and prepared a speech it is all painfully rehearsed, at odds with the spontaneity you might expect from genuine affection, or at least the product of a person very distant from, and perhaps even unable to handle, emotion. The painfully confused paradox of Freddie’s words – “I don’t love you, not in the way you mean”, yet –  “I love you more than I have loved anyone before” – suggests as much.  There is a heartbreaking moment as Freddie moves to take his shoes from Hester,  who is mid polishing, and who cries out and totters across stage, desperately holding on to the shoe and to Freddie, not finished with either of them. The pain feels incredibly real and so it makes sense to me later to read of Rattigan’s own loss of his lover of ten years Kenny Morgan. Kenny Morgan gassed himself to death in a London bedsit after leaving Terence Rattigan for a younger man, his sexuality seen as a crime to society at that time. Homosexuality is displaced  from the lovers’ relationship (given the 1950s context of play’s creation) and is instead seen in the character of Mr Miller and the loss of his profession as a doctor.

Poised between the first scene and the last is the choice between the anonymity and numbing suffocation of the deep blue sea, or life – however mundane and painful it can be – sensation and feeling, at least for today. In the last scene we see Hester using a gas oven, making fried eggs and taking the first bite. Whilst love, or the lack of it, can seem poisonous the ex doctor in the house, Nick Fletcher as Mr Miller, is a steady source of if-at-first-rebuffed help and wisdom. He sees artistic talent, something different to the others, in Hester’s very first painting. Could it be hope? He calls it a flicker,  not a great fire, but suggests that the world is a dark enough place to make even a little flicker very welcome. Looking for the flickers in the big black darkness seems like sound advice to me. And it seems fitting that this flicker is found in art, Rattigan’s own choice of medium for voicing his own love lost.