It is Helen McCrory’s evening. Hardly off stage in two and a half hours, she is whey-faced and brittle as Hester Collyer, failing to resist despair. She drives her character from anguish and fear to bravado-driven hope to loss and, ultimately to resignation and a glimmer of positive determination. It is a very finely nuanced, bravura performance.
Rattigan’s 1952 play opens with an apparently dead body on the floor in front of a gas fire – a decision the playwright is said to have made as a response to the suicide of his estranged gay lover. How important that is to understanding the play is debateable but anyone new to it certainly need some knowledge of the contextual background. The play was written, and is set, at a time when homosexuality and suicide were illegal and when adulterous relationships or even extra-marital sex were strongly disapproved of. And in the background there are tens of thousands of men like Hester’s lover Freddie Page (Tom Burke – good) finding it difficult to settle and find a purpose in civilian life after six years of war.
The third person in the play’s central adulterous triangle is Hester’s husband, William played by Peter Sullivan who finds gravitas, decency, dignity and reasonableness in the character – along with lack of sexual charisma which is what Hester craves and seems once to have thought she’d found it in her lover. McCrory convincingly conveys the sexual longing – a brave thing to attempt in 1952 – with warmth and passion.
Among the support roles there’s nice work from Nick Fletcher as the doctor who’s been struck off and from Marion Bailey as the well-meaning nosey landlady.
Tom Scutt’s set design is interesting. Although all the action takes place in Hester’s flat with kitchen stage left, Scutt has created a whole house converted into flats around it complete with stairways and thin walls so that you can see and hear the other occupants of the house moving about. It reinforces the fairly humble nature of Hester’s living arrangement given that the husband she has left is a judge living in Eaton Square. Much less successful is Peter Rice’s tiresome, low level rumbling sound which is almost continuous. Presumably it’s meant to connote danger, menace, anxiety – or something. In fact it’s just irritating and adds nothing.