Review: South Downs/The Browning Version, Minerva

“You’re 14 and you know what effeminate means, this does not bode well for you Blakemore.”

There have been quite a few revivals of Terence Rattigan shows in theatres across the country to mark his centenary year but leading them all has been Chichester Festival Theatre’s summer season which has paid tribute to the dramatist by both putting on productions of his plays and commissioning new works that have been inspired by his writings. This double bill incorporates both of those by pairing Rattigan’s one-acter The Browning Version with David Hare’s South Downs, newly written as a response to the former.

Both plays take place inside public schools, dealing with issues of insecurity and identity in such institutions and the loneliness that can strike whether through failing to fit in or losing oneself so thoroughly in dry academia. South Downs takes the pupils as a starting point, John Blakemore being a precocious 14 year old on a scholarship who doesn’t fit in with his upper-class contemporaries and whose budding intellectualism and refusal to abide by convention rattles his teachers: a nicely irascible Andrew Woodall and a kindly Nicholas Farrell.

There’s something of a fantasia to Hare’s constructions here which doesn’t quite totally work: the idyllic benevolence of an urbane prefect and his sympathetic actress mother seems a little too good to be true, especially as Blakemore’s familial relations didn’t seem as bad as all that. Though ultimately, I could hardly blame Alex Lawther’s excellently awkward John for falling for the dreamy Jonathan Bailey and Anna Chancellor’s Fortnum and Mason-cake bearing thespian. And Hare can’t resist the temptation to make John so supremely erudite yet completely unwilling to play the game to just get along. But Jeremy Herrin’s sweeping production, adorned with old school hymns and a healthy sense of pace, both amuses and entertains.

Rattigan’s The Browning Version is in another class though, Angus Jackson directing with devastating precision this tale of an ailing Classic professor facing early retirement without his promised pension but with a wife who doesn’t love him. Nicholas Farrell really excels as Crocker-Harris, subtly suggesting the bright professor that once was, now weighed down by years of dutiful repression and thoroughly shaken by the belated revelation of what his pupils think of him. Anna Chancellor is again outstanding as his elegant wife, herself something of a victim though bitterly harsh when given the chance and she connects well with Mark Umbers, her lover who is also a colleague of her husband.

South Downs and The Browning Versionmake an engaging double bill, slotting neatly into the enduring English obsession with public schools and it is perhaps fitting that Hare’s work does not overshadow Rattigan’s given the occasion. But then how could it, this year really has demonstrated Rattigan’s superb gift for capturing the corrosive power of the stiff upper lip and the stilted emotional restraint that exists in English culture and the different ways in which we all try to hide it.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 8th October

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