Theatre review: The Deep Blue Sea at West Yorkshire Playhouse *****

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COULD Maxine Peake be one of the best actors of her generation? Quite possibly if her performance in Terrence Rattigan’s deeply moving tale of love and lust is any measure.

As lost ingenue Hester Collyer she’s seductively engaging, skilfully and naturally capturing the character’s outward briskness, but underlying brittleness.

The playwright would have loved her in the role, not just because Peake does the part such justice but also because she brings to life a story which was once sneered at as a vestige of a bygone age of theatre. Clipped tones and melodrama may have been the order of the day, but Brief Encounter this is not.

Although it still has strong undertones of 1940s plays, The Deep Blue Sea is actually more gritty and complex than the next generation of writers, the Angry Young Men of the 1950s, would give the likes of Rattigan credit for. The story begins with the body of Hester lying on the floor of her London flat following a suicide attempt and slowly unravels to explain why she walked out on her dependable husband, judge Sir William Collyer, and straight into the arms of unreliable pilot Freddie Page.

Trapped between the unwanted adoration of one and unrequited devotion to the other, she freefalls into despair until she finds the most unlikely of saviours.

Sarah Esdaile’s direction is spot on, making the most of a single set, albeit a spacious one. Meanwhile the script, and Rattigan’s expert use of pace and language, is captivating throughout.

Lex Shrapnel’s portrayal of Freddie as merely cavalier, rather than an out-and-out cad, is a particularly impressive balancing act. So too is John Ramm’s Sir William, not a pastiche of an aggrieved husband, more of a grounded figure, but no less passionate. Great supporting roles too from Ann Penfold as landlady Mrs Elton and Ross Armstrong and Eleanor Wyld as nosey neighbours Ann and Philip Welch.

But it is Sam Cox’s comic delivery as mysterious ex-doctor, Mr Miller, that steals key sections of the show.

Nevertheless, most of The Deep Blue Sea is inevitably dominated by Peake, not just because of her near omnipresence, but her enchanting stage presence. This is very much her play, her moment – and it could very well be the making of her as a stage actor.

Rod McPhee

• To March 12, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds, 7.30pm, mats 1.30pm and 2pm, £6.50 to £26, Tel: 0113 2137700. www.westyorkshireplayhouse.co.uk

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