ADRIFT ON ANOTHER DEEP, BLUE, LONELY SEA…
The Deep Blue Sea is Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece (and about to play at the National Theatre). A young woman who has left her eminent older husband for an alcoholic young fighter-pilot is found at the start lying by a gas fire, being revived by down-at-heel neighbours after a suicide attempt in a shabby boarding-house. It is, in the end, redemptive. But in real life the three ill-starred lovers were men: young Kenny Morgan had left Rattigan for a younger lover and was being left in his turn by Alec Lennox. And Morgan died; Rattigan, after long minutes of silent shock at the news, resolved to make a play.
He changed the gender of course: Kenny became Hester. Homosexuality was illegal, imprisonable. As was attempted suicide.Years later, the playwright deplored this need for “Lord-Chamberlain-induced sex-change dishonesty”, and wondered whether to rewrite Kenny’s story as it was. He didn’t: so Mike Poulton, in homage to a past master and justice to those bitter pre-Wolfenden days, gives us Kenny’s story.
Like Rattigan’s play it is set in one room, in one day: a seedy Camden of 1948, a Patrick-Hamilton world brilliantly evoked in Robert Innes Hopkins’ stark room, scuffed and threadbare below a glimmering urban window. Director Lucy Bailey draws out some stunning performances including sharp cameos from the two women: Marlene Sidaway’s judgmentally fussy landlady (“His sort…musicians…theatricals.. least said soonest mended”) and Lowenna Melrose as Norma Hastings, cynically perceptive part-time girlfriend of the bisexual Lennox.
The core though is with three men: Kenny, the heartless Lennox, and Rattigan himself as he twice arrives, fastidiously appalled by the flat, trying to help and reclaim his young lover. Each has a different view of love. Kenny, painfully sweet and helplessly needy, wants a real relationship but also the impossible public validation of it : he still simmers with affront that in his years with the famous and socially lionized “Terry”, he had to live in a secret separate flat ,and once got introduced as his golf caddy. With Lennox his neediness becomes disastrous, because the younger man “just wants everybody to have fun”. Pierro Niel-Mee plays it with black-browed, bisexual brio, and a cruelty only available to the very, very young. And Rattigan too is perfect: senatorial, big in his grand overcoat, offering help and money and wanting his Kenny back, but on the same discreet terms. “Everything comes back to shame!” cries Kenny. The theme of gay shame and that long legal persecution and hiding runs through the play, alongside the close reflection of The Deep Blue Sea, darkening it with that history even as it affirms that love, desire, disappointment and betrayal are not confined to one gender or orientation.
Another close reflection is that Poulton borrows entire the figure of the struck-off, Austrian Jewish doctor who rescues Kenny first time round and lectures him on endurance and survival; George Irving is a dry, powerful Ritter. But Poulton adds another lodger too: Dafydd Lloyd, an Admiralty clerk who, shy and gauche and well-meaning, reminds Kenny of two things: the recent war (“We lost a lot of shipping, a lot of good men, there’s no going back”) and endearingly pleads that beyond racking emotion lies life. “S”not that bad being ordinary, old chap..”.
I wondered at times whether the play was a little too long (two and a half hours with its interval), and needed a Rattigan discipline: we hear a lot of repetition of Kenny’s hopeless need for public acknowledgement. But a day later, I think not. It was all necessary, and very fine.
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