10 September 2019.
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.
When Danny and Roberta meet, two troubled souls collide. Their chance encounter in a Bronx neighbourhood bar is more beer-fueled brawl than romantic spark. He’s all angry and covered in bruises, while she’s one step away from boiling over.
Play With Fire know how to pick an interesting and surprising script, and John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is no exception. The lean, sharp, and at times disarmingly funny dialogue takes no prisoners, and the two main characters are right-in-your-face.
Essentially it’s a story of two people getting to know each other and, in the process, we too seeing them come more clearly into focus. Danny is a trucker, free with his fists and quick to anger. Divorced single mother Roberta views herself as a failure and rages at the shitty hand life has dealt her. Both struggle with demons, secrets and guilt.
Feelings are frequently at fever pitch, and in the wrong hands it could become a shameless freak show, but Shanley’s script ensures that the two deeply damaged protagonists are never less than human. There’s also a satisfying complexity to the narrative which constantly wrong-foots – things suddenly flip around, or unexpectedly slap you in the face. This is especially true of the developing relationship between Roberta and Danny as the dynamics jerkily shift and switch.
Their tough exteriors are not all of their own making. Both are trapped in roles that those around them help to re-enforce. Danny’s workmates disparagingly nickname him The Beast, and Roberta’s parents’ ‘helpful’ interventions only serve to further undermine her efforts at motherhood. Tellingly, their defensive patterns of behaviour have become so ingrained that, even in the face of kindness, they find themselves creating arguments out of nothing or taking offence out of habit.
The production premiered in Hope Mill’s smaller Hope Aria studio during the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, and the no-frills former industrial space, with its bare brick walls and cramped dimensions, was a good fit for the play. Fortunately, the transfer to a larger black box space doesn’t rob the production of any of its intensity and focus. The audience is placed in rows facing a long narrowish stage, and the drama moves straightforwardly over time from right to left. Nothing fancy. Just a few bits of furniture to set the scene, some snatches of Tom Waits, and a couple of moody coloured spotlights – yet the whole thing grips tight.
That’s largely down to the full-on but note-perfect performances from Hannah Ellis Ryan & Danny Solomon. As Roberta, Ellis Ryan talks with her hands, seeming to both hold herself in check and push people away with them. When her feelings spill over it’s like watching a runaway train – exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Solomon’s Danny shrinks back from physical contact as if his skin is raw, and his breathing often becomes irregular as if he’s drowning. When he dares to hope for something better, it’s a heartbreaking sight. The extremes of emotion that their characters experience are communicated with pain-staking authenticity, and the moments of tenderness that punctuate their frenetic exchanges feel genuinely precious.
Roberta and Danny’s lives may seem far from ordinary, but the pain and loneliness that they experience have a more universal resonance. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea offers no easy answers but ultimately affirms that there is always hope. Play With Fire’s fiercely-focused, emotionally-charged production is truly compelling, and Solomon and Ellis Ryan are both excellent. One of the best things I’ve seen so far this year.