It’s not very often that a piece of theatre has had such an impact on me that I end up watching it three times*. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is one of these. It was one of the best shows I watched in 2019. Its characters moved me so much that they became seared into my mind. Play With Fire Productions have revived it again for a two-night run at the King’s Arms as part of their Best of the GM Fringe festival.
John Patrick Shanley‘s play depicts a chance encounter between two initially repellent people, at a bar in the Bronx, which gradually evolves into a perplexing romance.
Danny is an aggressive trucker who is hot-tempered, and brutally violent. His workmates call him “The Beast“. Sporting bruised knuckles and a bruised face, he thinks he just killed a guy in a fight. Roberta is a young single mother who is equally troubled. An abusive relationship with her Roman Catholic parents have left her burning with injustice, feeling that she needs to be punished for the harrowing acts from her disturbing past. These are two fascinating, complex characters who appear to have few redeeming qualities and seem to be entirely hateful people, but no more than they loathe themselves.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea provides a compelling insight into the depravity of human nature. But its masterstroke is in stripping back these characters, and gradually allowing them to become compatible with each other, revealing the vulnerability and reasoning behind their violent dispositions. Danny’s violent nature alarmingly offsets Roberta’s longing for retribution. It is an intense, disturbing relationship, but one that is engrossing and leads to atonement.
I had reservations about how the set would fit on the restricted stage space of the King’s Arms. Previous venues had a longer stage so the action could move from the bar in the Bronx to Roberta’s tiny bedroom, without the need to move furniture. Credit needs to be given for successfully adjusting to the smaller space. It’s a sparse, yet effective set that focuses the audience’s attention on these two complex characters. A mattress on the floor, and a bookcase are the only decoration on show, meaning that you become entirely absorbed in the breathtaking performances by Hannah Ellis-Ryan and Danny Solomon.
Both Solomon and Ellis Ryan were nominated for best actor at the GM Fringe Awards, and it is easy to see why. They both deliver astounding performances of the highest standards, fully embodying their complex characters. It is the best acting I have seen in years, proving that you don’t need to go to London’s West End to see actors at the top of their game.
When Danny and the Deep Blue Sea begins, both actors are visibly seething with intense anger and rage. It’s an explosive, intense opening, as these two characters clash with each other. Despite her smaller stature, Ellis Ryan is as physically intimidating as Solomon. Rather than being frightened of Danny’s violent brutality, she squares up against him, disarming Danny. Ellis Ryan masterfully renders Roberta’s intense self-loathing, almost spitting out her dialogue in hatred of herself. Roberta views Danny’s violence as her retribution for her past mistakes.
Likewise, Solomon simmers with extreme anger, visibly shaking, clenching his bruised fists. Quick to anger, the only thing that calms the storm inside Danny’s mind is when he hits someone. After meeting Roberta though, his temper diminishes. Solomon superbly strips back his character’s violent nature, revealing the excruciating vulnerability that lies inside “The Beast“. Solomon becomes physically distraught at moments, curling on the floor, weeping in disgust at what he has become. “Nobody talks to me. I’m alone wherever I am. Somebody help me”. Roberta is his chance of salvation.
Both actors are sensational, perfectly retaining the delicate balance between the physical brutality, and emotional vulnerability of their characters. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is an intense play that is utterly absorbing as a result of Solomon and Ellis Ryan’s phenomenal performances. You really root for the couple, hoping that they both find happiness together.
Even having watched it for a third time, the play loses none of its power. As a character study, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is fascinating and complex. As a love story, it breathtaking. As a piece of theatre, it is a masterpiece. Fringe theatre honestly doesn’t get better than this!
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
*The only other play that I have watched three times is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.