South Downs and The Browning Version

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green enjoys a superb night featuring a new companion piece to the Rattigan classic at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London

South DownsTwo theatrical gems in the shape of Terence Rattigan’s 1948 classic The Browning Version and a new companion piece David Hare’s South Downs, commissioned for the Rattigan centenary last year by the playwright’s estate, have reached the West End (Harold Pinter Theatre) after a successful run at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Both plays are set in boys’ public schools and are inspired by the authors’ own experiences. One is told through the eyes of a master and the other through the eyes of a boy and both revolve around unexpected acts of kindness which place the harsh worlds of these schools into stark contrast.

Hare’s play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, centres on Blakemore, a clever, 14 year-old scholarship boy, who is socially awkward and can’t quite fit in with his much wealthier peers. “I was like you but then I learned the rules”, his prefect tells him, an older boy whose easy charm Blakemore knows he will never acquire. Only the prefect’s mother, a glamorous actress, seems to understand the boy’s suffering.

Although it is highly personal, this is one of Hare’s most tender touching and funny plays and vividly evokes the hierarchies and priorities of boarding – school boys in 1962, as the playwright traces the way that changing the world once seemed like something to aspire to and which could be achieved. Alex Lawther, in his first acting role, captures the spirit of Blakemore, a boy with no idea how to convert his intelligence into influence or happiness. Anna Chuncellor is perfect as the exotic but wise actress and Jonathan Bailey is equally commendable as her self-assured son.

The Rattigan, on the other hand, has far more depth and I can honestly say is the best production of The Browning Version I have seen. This play packs far more truths about the human condition into 70 minutes than most other dramas could manage in twice or three times the length.

It focuses on dessicated classics master, Crocker Harris, about to retire on the grounds of ill health having been mocked by the boys, cuckolded by his wife and disrespected by the governors. The pension he was hoping to receive never materialises and the farewell speech he is due to make is considered of little importance and pushed to the start of the final day’s events, ahead of that of his much younger replacement. But having been trampled over by everyone in his life, both personally and professionally, will he have the guts to finally stand up for himself and do the unexpected?

Director Angus Jackson draws a deeply affecting central performance from Nicholas Farrell as Crocker Harris, a meticulous man poignantly aware of his failings as a teacher and a husband, yet eloquent in his restraint, and brought to a spontaneous burst of emotion by a small, kindly act from a pupil Anna Chuncellor is equally impressive as his embittered, sexually frustrated wife who has no qualms about cheating on her husband, and there is a strong support by a fine cast of adults and teenage actors.

A superb, unforgettable evening in the theatre, then, which no serious playgoer can afford to miss.

South Downs & The Browning Version
Harold Pinter Theatre

Runs until 21 July

Box office: 0844 871 7622

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