Passionate love doesn’t sit well in post-WWII Britain. It is too demonstrative for an era of restraint and good manners, too emotional for people who exclaim “gosh” rather than swearing, too indulgent in this time of rationing.
But for Hester Collyer, passionate love can’t be helped – it is what she feels, overwhelmingly, for her younger, live-in lover Freddie Page. It is why she left her stable home with her rich lawyer husband for a distinctly unstable life in a rundown boarding house with jobless Freddie, and it is why, when Terence Rattigan’s play opens, Hester is found by her neighbours, unconscious in her flat after attempting suicide.
Taking place during the course of one day following Hester’s bungled suicide attempt, Rattigan’s play draws a portrait of unrequited love and its consequences. Greta Scacchi’s anguished Hester is a woman unable to extricate herself from her love for Freddie, even though she is well aware he does not have the same level of feeling towards her. Freddie, a dashing, caddish former RAF pilot, is incapable of such depth of feeling, presumably because all the love he has is directed towards himself, so much so that when he finds out about Hester’s suicide attempt he is more concerned with how it would have affected his reputation than how she is feeling.
Nevertheless, Rattigan makes Hester’s love for this unsympathetic man understandable. Conventionally married to “the first man who asked”, here is a woman so unused to desire that the physical attraction she suddenly feels for a younger, good looking man overwhelms her to the extent that she cannot let go of those feelings, even though Freddie can never fulfil her emotionally. Ironically, it is the scenes Hester shares with her estranged husband, Simon Williams’s Sir William Collyer, that are the more touching and real, while her relationship with Freddie (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) seems rooted in fantasy.
While Hester’s predicament is drawn sympathetically, there is as much humour as sadness in this play, as director Edward Hall gently mocks the clipped conventions of the time. Landlady Mrs Elton (Jacqueline Tong) is an endearing gossip who pours tea spilt onto the saucer back into her cup; neighbours Ann and Philip are surreptitiously fascinated by the outpouring of emotion next door, even though it wouldn’t do to indulge in such behaviour themselves. Only the strange figure of disgraced doctor Mr Miller (Tim McMullan) cuts through conventionality to give Hester the frank advice she needs.
Francis O’Connor’s intricate set gives a film noir feel to the piece. Set in Hester and Freddie’s shabbily decorated flat, one wall is cut away to show the atmospherically lit landing behind, a device which allows the audience glimpses of the characters’ reactions on leaving and entering Hester’s living room.
While others can come and go, Hester remains bound to the passion that has so far consumed her. Whether this passion is fatal or survivable is a question Rattigan leaves to the very end.