Denise Black returns home - to Chichester Harbour - for festival theatre revival

Denise Black in rehearsal for Deep Blue Sea at Chichester Festival Theatre in June/July 2019. Picture by Manuel Harlan
Denise Black in rehearsal for Deep Blue Sea at Chichester Festival Theatre in June/July 2019. Picture by Manuel Harlan
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Denise Black returns to her spiritual home with the revival of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, alongside Nancy Carroll, Hadley Fraser and Gerald Kyd.

She was born in a maternity home in Emsworth which is no longer there; grew up in Bedhampton; went to school in Southsea and later moved to Hayling Island.

‘But my real home is Chichester Harbour, my spiritual home. My dad was in the navy and he built a little 19-foot boat from when I was born. It took him two years.

‘I spent my entire childhood on Chichester Harbour and Langstone Harbour. I thought London was the north! I never went abroad or anything. I just sailed. That’s all we did.’

Denise moved away from the area when she went to London to study psychology at university. Her parents had absolutely forbidden her from becoming an actress.

‘It never occurred to me. It was that “Don’t put your daughter on the stage,” type thing. But I did school plays. I was given a minor part when I was 11, and then I was given Prospero at 16 or 17, would you believe! Someone did ask did I want to become an actress, but I said no, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was one of those careers evenings that you go along to with your parents, and the science teacher said: “Have you considered psychology?” I didn’t even know what it was, and they said it was about minds and brains. And I thought “Well, that sounds interesting!”

‘It wasn’t. I was at great odds with psychology! We took large groups of people and tried to do tests on them. I always thought that that was a terrible way of trying to find out how minds work. I am still passionately interested in it, but I do argue with it a lot!’

However, it was acting which claimed Denise, despite the family warnings: ‘My mother told me that I was looking at a life of poverty, and she was right. I rang her after ten years and told her that she was absolutely right. It was very sad to be so impoverished!

‘But I had huge energy, and I can always feel the mood in a room and what people are thinking, and I love watching people. I am so fascinated by people.’

And that’s a great qualification for acting: ‘An actor’s job is not to judge the character, but to understand. Once you have digested the play, you have to deliver the piece as written. You have got to understand why the characters are saying what they are saying and what they are thinking, but once you have done all that objective stuff, my job is to campaign single-handedly for my character to be understood!’

And she will be doing that in The Deep Blue Sea. 1951. In a shabby Ladbroke Grove flat, Hester Collyer’s neighbours find her unconscious; she has taken an overdose in front of the gas fire. Their only option is to notify her husband – a pillar of the establishment.

But Hester left her husband the previous year to embark upon a passionate love affair with dashing ex-RAF pilot, Freddie Page. What has happened in her life to make her want to end it? And can she bring herself to go on living?

Denise is playing Mrs Elton, the housekeeper: ‘She is pivotal in a secondary way in the course that Hester takes. She is usually played as the busybody and the gossip, but that’s not the way I am coming to it at all. She looks after her husband who has been through both wars. She is a full-time carer, and she needs to work her socks off, and what I think is happening is that she lives her life vicariously through the people in the house. As our director says, she is usually played as garrulous and a nosy-parker, and I think that’s wrong. I don’t think that’s who she is at all.’

DEEP BLUE SEA

Minvera Theatre, Chichester

June 21-July 27 

cft.org.uk