“I may have been a brilliant scholar, but I was woefully ignorant of the facts of life.”
Given that last year was the first time I had made the trip to Chichester and took in the vast majority of their 2011 Festival, it is perhaps a little ironic that of the five plays I saw there, a third one has now opened in London. But I have no problems revisiting quality theatre and the double bill of South Downs and The Browning Version is certainly that. As part of the Rattigan centenary celebrations at CFT, David Hare was invited to write a response to The Browning Version and the two public school-set plays were mounted together in the intimacy of the Minerva Theatre to great effect. It has now transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre (surely forever destined to be known as ‘formerly the Comedy…’) where I caught the last preview with my Aunty Jean who was down for the night.
And it was a great decision. I enjoyed Jeremy Herrin’s South Downs again, but to my mind it is The Browning Version, directed by Angus Jackson, that has become richer, deeper and thus even more heartbreaking and by any rights, ought to become one of the hottest tickets in town. My original review of the plays can be read here and the cast has transferred almost in its entirety (I think just one boy has been replaced for the West End run) so I won’t say too much more here aside from a few further reflections. Particularly, I don’t think I gave enough credit to Alex Lawther’s Blakemore and Liam Morton’s Taplow first time round, who both made their professional debut at the Minerva and who both produce empathetically balanced schoolboys with nuanced mixes of eagerness, thoughtlessness and naïveté, boyhood crushes and unaffected good-naturedness.
Nicholas Farrell is excellent, particularly as Crocker-Harris in Rattigan’s classic – his ageing Classics master emotionally buttoned up as tight as he can muster and painfully ashamed of the feelings that he can no longer hide as the reality of his final few days at this school catch up on him, we can see and feel Farrell castigating himself for what he sees as weakness. But it is Anna Chancellor who is genuinely outstanding for me. In South Downs, she’s the self-described kind of mum that everyone wishes they had, opening the eyes of the blinkered Blakemore with a loquacious elegance and expansive kindness. And then after the interval, she’s is simply incendiary as Millie Crocker-Harris, limited and frustrated in her marriage and circumstances, the desperation with which she claws at her lover’s body (Mark Umbers in fine linen-suited form – and I don’t remember AC going for his buttocks with quite so much vigour in Chichester!) and the glacial cruelty as her frustrations explode are just breath-taking to watch.
I was impressed at how well the productions transferred from the open stage of the Minerva into the Harold Pinter (in my mind, I hate this theatre but the view from the front of the Royal Circle really was very good, I should remember this!): the choirboy-filled interludes of South Downs make for great atmosphere and the single drawing-room set for the second half is beautifully dressed by Tom Scutt. Undoubtedly, I prefer The Browning Version, it’s a multi-layered and achingly beautiful play in which Rattigan’s enforced homosexual repression finds the most touching of voices. Hare’s South Downs, to my mind at least, panders a little more to an enduring interest in the public school world that holds little interest to my comprehensive-educated mind, but ultimately fits in well with this double bill which goes a long way to show us, no matter how small it is perceived to be or to whom it is given, just how far an act of kindness can travel to truly lighten the spirit.