With its clipped accents, simmering tension,
undulating music and themes of mental anguish and sexual tension, Terence
With plenty of "you knows"s and "you see"s to begin sentences, this is a piece where everything is said in the unsaid.
Set in 1940s' London - a time where women were there to be wives, divorce was frowned upon and attempted suicide was still a crime - our protagonist Hester Collyer (a show-carrying performance brimming with confused angst by Helen McCrory) is in the midst all three of these problems. Her failed suicide at the start of the play shows her unable to deal with the situation she is in - still loved by her estranged husband whilst unloved by the younger more dangerous man she left him for, without money and without a purpose in life. Her early love for painting illustrates her hankering for the deep blue sea; a better choice for escape than 'the devil' on the other side of that analogy. And the next two and a half hours play out the next 24 hours of her life as she desperately reaches out for something, anything, to give her purpose - and continually finds nothing.
There aren't many laughs here but the tension and desperation are handed out plentifully with McCrory using endless cigarettes as a crutch to carry her existence in a way that makes them feel like the other star of the play. Tom Scutt's beautifully dismal set implies the distant closeness of a world of strangers just outside of reach - showing the stairs to the other flats in the block and the shadows moving around them, to make the flat itself feel claustrophobic. When others appear in the flat, Hester comes to life, when they leave, she wanders around like a lost nomad.
With plenty of "you knows"s and "you see"s to begin sentences, this is a piece where everything is said in the unsaid. In the hands of some of the performers, this can feel like acting with a capital A - though all done to a fair reading. When McCrory isn't on stage (which is rare), we err dangerously close to cliched ham (especially in the scene where boyfriend Freddie admits to his friend Jackie that he doesn't love Hester and we struggle to care) - but her self-belief makes her enthralling to watch when she is on for 90% of the time. It's more jarring when she fluffs her lines - as she did several times at this performance; without her naturalism, it glaringly seems like just a play.
But this is, for the most part, perfect 'Mum Theatre' - well acted, beautifully designed and with an undercurrent of tragedy to move and involve. With the many hits being made of recent history costume dramas on our small screens, it's well-timed for all the ingredients of quality art to be before us on stage and will no doubt make for great cinema when it is broadcast live across cinemas in the UK on 1 September this year. It won't draw in new audiences or make people think differently about what theatre can offer - but for what it is and what it does, it does very well. Take your parents, take your grandparents - but don't bother taking your teenagers.