Tuesday 1 May 2012

Theatre review: South Downs and The Browning Version

Last year's Chichester season continues to become this year's West End season, as for the 2011 Terence Rattigan centenary they commissioned David Hare to write a companion piece to perhaps Rattigan's best-loved work, The Browning Version. Both plays are set in public schools, which Tom Scutt's set translates into polished wooden floors that fade into a dusty distance: Echoing perhaps the obscurity the characters think the institutions will fall into, as South Downs is set in the 1960s, when there was a genuine belief that public schools might be abolished. Hare's play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, plays first in the double bill, and shows us life from the point of view of the students. In particular one student, John Blakemore (Alex Lawther,) who isn't particularly popular at his High Church of England school. When he defends his best friend in class, his status as an outsider is only confirmed but Blakemore's search for answers continues, however much it aggravates his classmates.

Hare's play is entertaining if a bit vague - the school's religious affiliation is clearly a large element of what he wants to say, especially through the Confirmation classes that Blakemore finds himself constantly questioning. But in the end South Downs for me comes across as a play about outsiders, and accepting being one: It's through his friendship with popular prefect Duffield (the very good-looking, if a bit orange, Jonathan Bailey,) and Duffield's actress mother Belinda (Anna Chancellor) that Blakemore finds people sympathetic to his refusal to fit in.

Hare's play is good but is fated to serve as a mere appetizer to the one that inspired it. Angus Jackson directs The Browning Version which again focuses on an outsider, this time one of the staff. Andrew Crocker-Harris aka "The Croc" or "The Himmler of the Lower Fifth" (Nicholas Farrell) is an unpopular Classics master. It's not long after the War and illness is forcing Crocker-Harris to take early retirement and move to a less demanding, lower-paid job. The teacher has always found it hard to be liked, and has instead developed an apparently thick skin, deliberately appearing cold and distant. But as he packs up his belongings the consequences of his unpopularity hit home: His wife Millie (Chancellor) is having the latest of many affairs with Science teacher Frank (Mark Umbers;) he's been refused a pension and nobody has cared enough to protest; his young replacement (Rob Heaps) is being paraded in front of him; and the Headmaster (Andrew Woodall) wants him to downplay his farewell speech to the school. When a pupil (Liam Morton) arrives with a gift of Aeschylus' Agamemnon in Robert Browning's version, Crocker-Harris is no longer able to hold back his emotions.

Farrell's beautifully understated breakdown is the crux of the play but the whole piece (made up of a single scene in contrast to South Downs' many short ones) builds up gradually into a hugely satisfying, intensely moving picture that holds some hope for change at the end, and perfectly demonstrates why this one-acter has remained so well-loved. At times tonight's audience was a bit restless and noisy but this second play clearly sucked them in, with some events (particularly one cold act of cruelty by Millie) drawing gasps. Richard said it wasn't until right at the end that he decided he thought the second play was the superior one; for me it had me absorbed and convinced of its quality much earlier on. But either way, even if one of the plays is stronger than the other, the evening remains a satisfying double bill.

South Downs by David Hare and The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan are booking until the 21st of July at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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