Old Red Lion, London – until 24 June 2017
Danny (Gareth O’Connor) gets in to fights and drinks beer in dingy American bars. He’s quick to anger, but lacks punch in his simmering delivery. The first half of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea continues in much the same vain, devoid of intrigue or drive. John Patrick Shanley’s script clearly has something to say, hidden truths that are on the verge of exploding out. But Courtney Larkin’s production doesn’t set up the premise with enough mystery to keep the audience wondering what is coming next.
Danny (O’Connor) sits at a table next to Roberta (Megan Lloyd-Jones), who is equally damaged and disturbed. But in contrast to his silent, sullen demeanour, she is straight-talking and uncomfortable with the silences. The reality of the scene should be depressing, crushing and suffocating for the audience, but it isn’t – it’s too detached. These two are clearly in a world of resigned dystopia, but the fourth wall shields and mutes the atmosphere. That is, until the two start competing with each other, become more animated and desperate to be the most hopeless, the most despicable. It’s a badge of honour that neither will admit to wanting. Is it more disgraceful to beat a random guy to a bloody pulp, or to suck off your own father?
Once misery has indeed found its company and the sparks begin to fly, Larkin’s production pushes through its own defences and smacks the audience in the face with lethal intent. Kate Lines’ scene-changing choreography is dripping with lust and sexual energy, despite its out of place conception. The violence erupts full force, which satisfies Danny and Roberta’s inner demons, but a steamy salsa style cheapens the immediacy of their requirements. It should be enough for the two simply to smack each other around, tear off each other’s clothes and clash with animalistic fury.
From an explosive show of physicality and rage, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea deftly switches to a tender, intimate romance. The walls are down and it is apparent that the two need each other, validate each other, love each other. It seems so sudden but at the same time completely believable – these two have been searching without realising it, at risk of drowning in a savage ocean without the partner present to stay afloat. Larkin strips away the aggressive defence mechanisms and exposes a childlike level of affection and honesty underneath. Roberta (Lloyd-Jones) in particular opens up and spills her emotional guts out, heart wrenching speeches that burst with need and yearning. Danny (O’Connor) reciprocates in kind, a reticence to trust that elevates both performances from mushy romance to realistic, painful, burning love.
The show isn’t perfect by any stretch, nor should it be. The end scene shows that it may seem safer to exist in the darkness, protected by the safety of detachment, but it’s by no means a life. They breakdown and the show becomes a breakthrough, an intense message of messy reality. Larkin stops the production abruptly, but by plunging the audience suddenly into blackness she indicates that perfect endings are just as much a fantasy, just like the white dress, the beautiful wedding and the happily ever after. They’re nice to dream about, but are they achievable? Danny and Roberta certainly seem to think so.