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Monday, November 22, 2010
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Theatre: The Deep Blue Sea
By Terence Rattigan
Onward Production
Directed by Michael McCall
Featuring Alison Van Reeken, Tom O’Sullivan, Michael Loney, Greg McNeill, Will O’Mahony, James Helm, Julia Moody and Amanda Woodhams
Playhouse Theatre
November 19 - 28, 2010

Not waving, drowning

The early 50s in England have left us a pervading memory of grimness; the certainty and glamour of its old social order shattered by 40 years of violence, and Carnaby Street and the Beatles still an age away.

In the theatre of this grey, transitional world, an established group of playwrights and an emerging cadre of vivid young actors both sought to keep and find their audience.
It would be a few years yet before the latter found the writers they were looking for; it would be decades before the artistic reputations (and box office bankability) of the former recovered from the shock of the new world that was coming.

Foremost among these established writers was the prolific, systematic Terence Rattigan, while among the new breed of actor was the powerhouse Welshman Richard Burton. It’s a happy coincidence that these two very different figures are the genesis of this fine production of Rattigan’s 1952 drama The Deep Blue Sea by Sally Burton’s Onward Production company.
The play opens where many end: worried by the odour of gas coming from a room in a frayed old boarding house, the landlady, Mrs Elton (Julia Moody), and a tenant, Philip Welch (Will O’Mahony), burst in to find Hester Page (Alison van Reeken) unconscious in front of the heater.

An empty pill bottle lies on the table. A note sits on the mantelpiece. Her husband, Freddie (Tom O’Sullivan), is away, golfing with his RAF pal Jackie (James Helm).

Another tenant, Dr Miller, is summoned, and he revives Hester. Welch’s young wife Ann (Amanda Woodhams) arrives, and they try to work out whom to call.

Then Mrs Elton drops her bombshell: they should contact her real husband, the eminent magistrate Sir William Collyer (Michael Loney). Sir William arrives, Freddie returns, and Hester’s protestation that what had occurred was just an accident falls apart when he finds the note.

It’s a good, standard set-up to the story, and it takes maybe half an hour of not especially gripping action to get there.
 
Alison van Reekin

And then the play takes off, courtesy of Michael McCall’s sure-footed direction and van Reekin’s astounding performance. Her Hester burns through the remaining acts of her downfall and redemption, and she nails both the fragile insouciance masking her rising hysteria, and the sheer, physical passion that has thrown down the life she led, and her life itself. There’s a moment when Freddie leaves her embrace for the last time and she stands perfectly still, clutching the ghost of him, that is acting of transfixing quality.

She’s supported admirably by Michael Loney, whose stock-in-trade impishness adds real charm to the deserted husband, and Greg McNeill, who handles the tricky character of the shady but acute Dr Miller with aplomb.

Even more difficult is the role of Freddie, who has to be attractive enough to besot an accomplished, mature woman and creepy enough not to deserve her. O’Sullivan is more than handsome enough to deliver the first and makes a good fist of the second. The rest of the cast – and it’s great to see eight actors in a local, professional production – have good moments that they deliver well. The show is accurately designed (Lawrie Cullen Tait) and lit (Andrew Portwine), and Hester is beautifully dressed by Steve Nolan. Stage managers don’t often make it to reviews, but this show is a minefield of potentially deadly entrances, exits and props, and Sue Fenty disarms them all with her customary skill.

Sally Burton has already earned our thanks for giving Perth a well-resourced independent production house, and The Deep Blue Sea will win her more. I wonder if she has in mind producing more shows related in some way to her husband’s career and the theatre (and cinema) in which he thrived? If this is the case, it will be a fascinating and unique development of more than just local interest.

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian of 22.11.10