South Downs / The Browning Version

David Hare / Terence Rattigan

A Chichester Festival Theatre production

Minerva Theatre, Chichester

(2011)

Review by Sheila Connor

Chichester’s tribute to Rattigan concludes with one of his most famous plays, The Browning Version, twinned here with the world premiere of Hare’s South Downs written at the invitation of the Rattigan Trust, both drawing on their authors’ first hand experience of the public schools of their time, both revolving around a central character finding difficulty in expressing emotion and both main characters feeling inadequacy, loneliness and self-loathing.

South Downs takes place in the austere setting of a Sussex public school in the sixties where Nicholas Farrell, as Rev. Eric Dewley, keeps control with derisory sarcasm, trying to teach Christian values but at a loss to know how to deal with the intensive questioning of Blakemore, an earnest and highly intelligent boy who feels isolated from his peers, has only one friend, and is even in danger of losing him too. In a very remarkable performance, Alex Lawther takes us back to the teenage years of uncertainty, anguish and feelings of inadequacy. He worships Duffield, the glamorous prefect (played with a careless confidence by Jonathan Bailey), and his equally glamorous actress mother.

The two plays are drawn together by a single act of kindness, and in this case Duffield’s mother offers tea, cake and good advice. Just act a part, pretend to be the same as the others to fit in. Anna Chancellor is enchanting as the kind and caring mother trying to help a troubled boy through his schooldays.

Most of the boys in Hare’s play appear to be very young, some making their professional debut, but they all turn in performances which bode well for their future.

In Rattigan’s play, set in the forties, Andrew Crocker-Harris (formerly a brilliant classics scholar) faces a pensionless future, a humiliating transfer to a lesser role, and life in a loveless marriage, his bitter and resentful wife (Anna Chancellor again, in a very different role and again perfect) showing no hesitation in informing him of her constant extra-marital affairs. Known to the boys as ‘The Crock’, he keeps tight control of his pupils and his emotions. With true British reserve his feelings are kept under wraps while taking his job seriously, sticking religiously to the rules and becoming a dried up old stick, yet flashes of dry humour hint at the man he once was.

The act of kindness here comes from a pupil, the unexpected gift of a book which causes him to break down in uncontrollable sobbing, to his shame. Nicholas Farrell’s brilliantly explicit portrayal had me reaching for the Kleenex, even more so as he struggles to retain composure after a viciously cruel comment by his wife Millie renders the gesture a sham. A young Liam Morton is the sympathetic donor, here making his professional debut and doubling as pupil Roger Sprule in South Downs.

If you want your emotions stirred and sympathies engaged these are the plays to see - most particularly the Rattigan where The Crock concludes with a final act of defiance, and a note of triumph as he asserts himself enough to demand his right to make the final speech. There is hope!

Both plays are expertly and sympathetically directed by Jeremy Herrin and Angus Jackson respectively, and never allowed to become over sentimental; this is theatre at its best making one wonder why it was that Rattigan ever went out of favour, and with Hare’s beautifully written play a fitting tribute - a evening to remember.

Until 8th October, 2011