National Theatre | ★★★★☆
This new production of Terrence Rattigan’s 1952 play evokes brilliantly both the uncertainty of the decade in which it was written and its universal insights about relationships.
It opens with a bungled suicide: Hester Collyer (played by Helen McCrory), the estranged wife of a judge, has tried to gas herself but forgot to put a shilling in the meter. She has been living for a year with Freddie Page (Tom Burke), a former RAF test pilot whose inability to fully adjust to civilian life has led him to drink. The action takes place over the course of a day, as her relationship finally unspools in the wake of her suicide attempt.
One of the great strengths of the play, and of McCrory’s performance, is that it never makes Hester’s circumstances the sum of her motivations for suicide. Even towards the end her reasons remain slightly opaque: beyond the outward tensions between love and lust there is a deeper lack of fulfilment, a dissatisfaction wrought not just by Freddie but by the supporting role consigned to her by society.
McCrory’s performance is beautiful, but all the characters in Rattigan’s play are fully realised. They all have lives beyond our observation. Page is seemingly unsympathetic, capriciously reading Collyer’s suicide note to a friend, but he’s also been irreparably damaged by war before we ever meet him. Burke’s performance imbues him with a latent sadness, and a sense that his crudeness conceals a profound frustration at his inability to sufficiently reciprocate her love for him.
Rattigan was a great writer of repression: it was this that gave him such a deep understanding of Englishness. He saw, like his contemporaries the ‘angry young men’, that the English spoke of in euphemism, that they felt things beyond their capacity for expression. Beneath the repressive surface of post-war English life was a teeming, unspoken emotion.
Where he differed from his fellow dramatists was in his treatment of this emotional impotence: rather than railing against it, Rattigan was sensitive to it, utilising it and turning it into his defining asset. Real passion is translated in metaphor or through banalities – to particularly devastating effect in the play’s final scene. And it’s significant that Dr Miller (Nick Fletcher), the émigré doctor and the play’s only foreigner, is the most emotionally articulate character.
Alongside McCrory and Burke, Fletcher is the star turn. He is initially curiously removed and restrained, but his tragic past is gradually revealed in hints as his friendship with Hester grows, and his performance builds with it to a sort of quiet crescendo.
The actors are aided greatly by Tom Scutt’s shabby, expansive set, which creates an authentic sense of other lives and of a London that exists outside this apartment.
The only bum note is Hubert Burton’s performance as the young, oblivious man who lives above Hester. He plays it too lightly, shooting for laughs that aren’t there. Even he, however, has his moments in a delicate production that does justice to Rattigan’s mastery of subtext.