Terence Rattigan’s highly regarded 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea is a quintessentially English drama from a very specific time, written when the country was still recovering from the war. It’s worlds removed from Australia today, and this Sydney Theatre Company production never quite manages to cross that divide. The world on stage rarely feels entirely real and so we remain disconnected from the piece, despite a strong performance from Marta Dusseldorp in the central role of the anguished Hester Collyer.

Written as a reaction to the repressive social climate in England at that time, when homosexuality and suicide were illegal, and living with someone to whom you weren’t married was regarded as “living in sin”, the play appears to have been triggered by a tragic incident in Rattigan’s life. The playwright had had a secret relationship with a younger actor called Kenneth Morgan, who had left him for a younger man. In 1949, Rattigan received a call telling him that Morgan had gassed himself to death in a London bedsit.

Marta Dusseldorp, Paul Capsis and Matt Day. Photograph © Daniel Boud

The Deep Blue Sea begins with Hester Collyer – or Mrs Page as she now calls herself – unconscious in front of a gas fire in a shabby flat in Ladbroke Grove – then an unfashionable suburb in north London. She has tried, unsuccessfully, to kill herself.

Hester, we discover, has left her successful but dull husband Sir William Collyer (Matt Day), a high court judge, for a dashing ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page (Fayssal Bazzi), who is struggling to adjust to life after the recent war and spends much of his time drinking.

Over the course of one day, we discover how Hester – caught between two men, neither of whom can give her the passion she longs for – has been driven to suicidal despair, and how she comes to reassert herself and find a way to go on living.

Directing the play for STC, Paige Rattray’s production begins with Dusseldorp lying on an open stage lit by a wash of blue light, floating perhaps in a dream brought on by the gas. But the real world quickly returns as stage hands and cast members wheel on pieces of the set and gradually construct the living room where she now lives.

It feels rather cumbersome as the walls and furniture (designed by David Fleischer) are slowly pushed into place, but once it’s assembled it evokes the drabness of the flat in which Hester now finds herself with its worn leather armchair, old-fashioned gas heater, and cheap wooden table – though it feels far too spacious given the size of the theatre. A smaller, more intimate venue would have helped intensify the sense of claustrophobia, emotional intensity and frustration in the play. The set is turned around for the second act to give us a different perspective when the focus shifts more to Freddie, and then back again for the third act, which works well.

Marta Dusseldorp and Fayssal Bazzi. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Rattigan brings a range of characters from across the English class system into the play; class inevitably playing its role in the story. Had Hester known that you have to put a shilling in the meter to keep the gas going, she wouldn’t be alive now, for starters.

Also featured are the respectable, highly regarded Sir William whose uptight constraint comes from his well-to-do upbringing; Philip Welch (Brandon McClelland) and his wife Ann (Contessa Treffone), a young, conventional, middle-class couple who live upstairs; Mrs Elton (Vanessa Downing), the gossipy but kindly, tolerant working-class landlady; and Mr Miller (Paul Capsis), who is no longer a doctor. Like Hester, who has defied convention and is living a life most of them find hard to understand, Mr Miller is a social misfit, having been struck off the register for an undisclosed, but clearly evident reason here.

By playing the piece in Australian accents, the differentiation in class is reduced and that element – key to the play – becomes less pronounced. Phrases like “old chap” sit oddly, references to not ‘sneaking’ at public (as in private) school get lost, and the lack of English accents generally makes the world we are watching more difficult to believe.

Dusseldorp gives a febrile, brittle performance as Hester, capturing her frustration and fragility as well as her determination and resolve, conveying the fluctuating emotions and despair physically as well as vocally. It’s an impressive and at times moving performance, but there is little sexual chemistry between her and Bazzi’s Freddie – and if we don’t believe their passion it’s harder to relate emotionally to her situation. Instead you find yourself wondering why she’s with him in the first place.

Bazzi, meanwhile, shows us Freddie’s anger in the second act without delving deeply into how adrift he now feels. The moving kinship that develops between Hester and Mr Miller, which Rattigan envisaged, also struggles to find its feet in this production. The role of Mr Miller never sits entirely comfortably on Capsis, with laughter often coming at the wrong time. His mannerisms and longish hair – at a time when such things were considered fairly scandalous in narrow-minded, conservative society – would surely have drawn a different response from the other characters in the play to the lines written, while the final, crucial conversation between Mr Miller and Hester doesn’t have the emotional impact it should.

Marta Dusseldorp and Vanessa Downing. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Day does a good job in capturing Sir William’s decency and dullness, though he could bring more of a sense of entitled authority to the role. McClelland and Treffone are terrific as the conservative young couple, Downing is touching and very believable as the compassionate Mrs Elton, and Charlie Garber is also convincing as Freddie’s gung-ho friend Jackie, who has managed to move on after the war, where Freddie has not.

In many ways, The Deep Blue Sea is now an old-fashioned play, particularly when staged in a country like Australia where class never held the same sway. We can still relate to the hurt, desperation, frustration and despair that Hester feels – which Dusseldorp certainly conveys. There are times when we feel moved and moments when the drama really kicks in – you could hear the opening night audience hold its breath when Freddie discovers Hester’s hidden suicide note – but overall the production never quite finds its groove and so leaves us watching it without becoming swept up in the heartache and emotion.

The Deep Blue Sea plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until March 7


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