Terence Rattigan was, at his height, the most successful British playwright of his day, with 3 plays in the West End simultaneously. He wrote what later became disparagingly known as “ well-made” plays, and to our ears some of the dialogue is now often stilted some 70 years on.
But his stories are gripping and full of humanity and passion. Hester, played here brilliantly by Helen McRory is at first sight just a woman who’s made the wrong choices and fallen for the wrong man. But there’s much more than that to this apparently tawdry love tale.
What McRory brings out is the stubborn independence of the woman, who could opt for a well-off life back with her estranged High Court judge husband, played with an awkward disdain by Peter Sullivan.
Instead, being I suppose a post-war “ modern woman” she lives with the drunken, carefree ex- test pilot Freddie and pays the price. Tom Burke as Freddie is physically attractive, with a burning desire that he can’t focus and there’s raw feral passion between the two characters.
The play opens with the aftermath of Hester’s attempted suicide , from which she recovers remarkably quickly and there’s a fatalistic trajectory to her life that seems beyond her control. The three men who interfere in Hester’s chaotic life are all ultimately unhelpful. The fourth – a neighbour in the multi-occupancy apartment block – effectively saves her life. He too is a highly flawed character : a doctor struck off for we know what not, but with a clear deus ex machine role in the play to make Hester think more clearly.
Miller, the character played delicately by Nick Fletcher is an optimist with no particular reason to be so – reduced o being a bookmakers clerk and moonlighting pro bono at a specialist hospital . He is clearly Rattigan’s voice when he tells Hester “ If you can live without hope, you can live without despair.”
The direction by Carrie Cracknell is crisp and clear: the set by Tom Scutt, on the vast Littleton stage is way too big for a one-bed apartment. We ought to feel the physical and psychological claustrophobia and that element is lost.
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