This play is often considered Terence Rattigan's best, and it provides a fantastic opportunity for any actress in the central role of Hester Collyer, the judge's wife who has embarked on a doomed affair with a boozy ex-pilot who cannot love her and walks out. Helen McCrory is the perfect casting for Hester and gives a riveting performance as a woman imprisoned by her own unstoppable emotions and by the conventions of early 1950s Britain. Her voice with its strangulated RP pronunciation is that of the Queen in her youth but her portrayal never shades into caricature. McCrory should find herself on the Best Actress shortlists for this year's awards after this National Theatre production.
Carrie Cracknell directs with sensitive aplomb, leaving plenty of time for the audience to feel the exploration of subtext that makes Rattigan such a good playwright. Characters tell lies to deceive not just other people but also themselves. Rattigan unpeels the realities and the emotional imbalances beneath the polite facade of English social conversation like nobody else. I didn't much like Cracknell's production of Medea (which also starred McCrory) on the same Lyttelton stage two years ago, finding it too crammed with fussy detail and over-complicated, but this time she mostly gets the balance right. The London flat that Hester shares with her lover Freddie Page is shown here in Tom Scutt's set as just one floor in a multi-occupation house. There are other rooms above it where characters are dimly seen moving around, and this gives a convincing context. We hear and see the other characters moving up and down stairs, so that Hester's life becomes a constant struggle to hide her agony from the well-meaning neighbours and the landlady.
Freddie, the washed-up former test pilot and weekend golfer whose best days are long behind him in the Battle of Britain, is played by Tom Burke. I'm not sure he quite conveys the drunken awfulness of the man for whom Hester has abandoned her posh husband, but this is a matter of nuance. Freddie may be on the slide, but he is no villain. Among the rest of the supporting cast, I particularly liked Nick Fletcher as the disgraced former doctor Mr Miller, a man who seems to be expiating some secret crime in his past.
My only reservation about this production was triggered by the way Cracknell directs the crucial final moments. Rattigan's script both begins and ends with a gas fire; at the start Hester's body is discovered in front of it after a failed suicide attempt. It turns out she has been saved because she failed to put a shilling in the gas meter. At the end of the play she puts a shilling in the meter, but then switches the gas on and lights it. For some inexplicable reason the playwright's elegant version, which suggests that Hester will have to learn to survive, isn't good enough for Cracknell, who adds a fussy coda in which Hester fries an egg on the gas stove in a far corner of the stage and eats it. The message that life continues is unchanged, but in theatrical terms it misfires; the addition of extra business destroys the symmetry of Rattigan's play and creates a distraction that really isn't needed. I think the director should have more trust in what Rattigan wrote. He generally knew exactly what he was doing.