“I despise middle-aged women who talk to themselves at the dead of night,” says Rosemary Hodge, a widow who is knocking back whisky at midnight and talking on her own in this grief-soaked digital production of Terence Rattigan’s monologue.
It is not clear whether her verdict on middle-aged women is an ironic statement or born of self-loathing, but it is complicated by the fact that Rosemary believes (or half believes) she is talking to her late husband, Geoffrey, who recently died in a “drunken accident” in the drawing room in which she sits, although she suspects it was suicide.
“Are you in this room, Geoffrey?” she asks, as if conducting a seance, and it is one of many questions she poses to him, willing him back with her interrogations until the drama becomes a one-woman duologue in which Janie Dee plays Rosemary but also ventriloquises Geoffrey’s voice from beyond the grave.
The play pivots on this strange and weighty dramatic artifice – of one actor voicing two parts. It is a device that could easily feel forced, or impose too big a burden on its performer, but Dee becomes a tour de force as the psychically divided Rosemary. She is both guilty wife and silently judging husband, uncanny in the part of Geoffrey, when her voice changes timbre to capture his – as rough-hewn and northern as hers is urbane RP – so that she seems possessed.
Joan Didion has written eloquently of the “magical thinking” that can accompany grief and Dee manifests this mournful state with creepy poignancy. She lashes out at Geoffrey and then at herself. “Loneliness is a defeat,” she says, defiantly, but looks every inch the lonely Hampstead dowager.
She has, by her own admissions, been an icy wife, withholding emotion from Geoffrey but now, in his death, she is giving him all the unspent drama of her guilt, her resentment and her unexpressed love for him, and we realise this “dialogue” with him is the reckoning she denied him in his lifetime.
A monologue originally written for television in 1968, it translates seamlessly into screen form. Produced by Jack Maple and Brian Zeilinger-Goode for MZG Theatre Productions and directed by Alastair Knights, it may not be one of Rattigan’s major works but it explores many of his preoccupations, from the desires and frustrations of women from the upper echelons of society, to all that remains unsaid in a relationship but can be repressed no longer.
And just as Hester’s relationship with her husband, a judge, and her lover, a young airman, is bound up with social class in The Deep Blue Sea, so, too, is the power dynamic in Rosemary’s marriage. She speaks repeatedly of the “honesty” that she denied Geoffrey with her “impeccable politeness” and even names her snobberies – that she now calls Geoffrey an “architect” to her Hampstead friends when he was, in fact, a plumber, and that she forced him to buy the home that he hated.
The drama takes place only in the drawing room, but this production, filmed in a hotel, has too much of a hotel feel to it to be an upper middle-class north London home, though Dee’s convincing performance eclipses the setting. Plaintive strains of piano music by Lindsey Miller add to the pervading melancholy of the piece. In the end, the drama’s strengths amount to a kind of weakness: it has such fluidity and pace that at 30 minutes seems over too soon, just as it is warming up. It seems to abort, rather than end, leaving us wanting more of Rosemary, and Dee.