Nestled under the exposed brick arches of London Bridge Station, the dark and rather dank venue known as The Vault, part of Southwark Playhouse, is a suitably raw space in which to stage a production of John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 play, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.
The two-hander opens in a seedy and almost deserted bar in the Bronx in which we meet Danny (Jonathan Chambers), fresh from another fight with someone who dared to look at him the wrong way on his way home, and Roberta (Clare Latham), who has come out drinking to escape her parents, her teenage son and, she says, her own head. They are both lost souls, and both perpetually angry at the world and at themselves thanks to their loveless childhoods and, in Roberta’s case, a particularly ‘bad thing’ that haunts her at all times. It sounds bleak, but these two people have met at a point in their lives when they feel they can finally move on and find (and maybe even deserve) love and happiness. In Roberta, Danny has finally found someone who doesn’t make him mad, and Roberta is amazed and delighted that Danny genuinely doesn’t care what she’s done.
The most satisfying element of this play is the quality and subtlety of the writing; the dialogue is consistently amusing and surprising. Danny’s stories of random violence are funny one moment, horrifying the next, and there is real beauty in the way Roberta describes listening to the distant sounds of the sea to calm her anxiety. And while Danny may have been dubbed ‘The Beast’ by his workmates, his faltering attempts at sweet-talk – “your mouth is like a little flower right there on your face” – suggest that there is an old-fashioned romantic hidden somewhere behind those bloodied clothes and clenched fists.
The premise of this play and the pain at the heart of these two characters may not suggest much in the way of comedy, but there is a wit and a spark about the writing that makes it a surprisingly easy and entertaining watch. But the script does demand that the laughs suddenly give way to moments of sadness, and these gear shifts are handled with delicacy and aplomb by director Ché Walker and his performers. This is an exposing space in which to perform – in every sense, the actors spend much of the play in state of undress, literally stripped bare – and they acquit themselves well.
Latham, in particular, impresses. Her Roberta is funny and seductive – and terribly troubled – and melts girlishly as Danny asks her to repeat her name just so he can watch those flower-like lips. Chambers has his own stand-out moment, though, which comes when Danny challenges his own instincts and reacts to an onslaught of slaps and kicks from Roberta with quiet stoicism. It may not always be easy to believe that these two messed-up and fiery characters will live a heartbreak free existence together, but it is the very fact that the romance they bring out in each other is so surprising that makes this play so sweet, so engaging and so enjoyable.
Read the Exeunt interview with Ché Walker.