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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
SOUTH DOWNS/THE BROWNING VERSION
at the Harold Pinter

FORMATIVE YEARS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Liam Morton in The Browning Version/ Ph: Johan Persson

It was an inspired idea to commission David Hare to write South Downs, a companion piece to Terence Rattigan's masterpiece The Browning Version, a one-act play more commonly performed with Rattigan's indifferent curtain-raiser Harlequinade. It's a double-bill to cherish and henceforward should remain a mandatory coupling. The theatre rarely offers two excellent plays for the price of one (indeed, given the cost of tickets these days its usually a case of one for the price of two!), so it's really an offer you shouldn't refuse.

South Downs has three things in common with the Rattigan warhorse. It is set in a boy's school (the playwright's alma mater, Lancing College); the central character, Blakemore, is friendless and unpopular; and, most significantly, he undergoes a seismic emotional change as a result of a single act of generosity.

The trouble with Blakemore (an impressive acting debut from Alex Lawther) is that he's a precocious, formidably intelligent, self-loathing 14-year-old who not only suffers the stigma of being incomparably brighter than his peers, but is also socially out of his class. His family live in a (shock! horror!) semi-detached in Hove, he has had to work hard to lose his Scottish accent, and nothing about his manner or his thinking reflects the establishment views held by most of the pupils and all of the masters.

It's only when a worldly actress (Anna Chancellor in full flow), the mother of the school's most charismatic prefect (Jonathan Bailey), invites him to her home for tea, a slice of cake and a good heart-to-heart that he begins to find a smidgen of self-esteem. The play ends optimistically, for, as one of the characters remarks, Blakemore (a portrait in embryo of Hare himself) is, despite his adolescent problems, going to do very well in life. 

As every theatergoer must surely know by now, the protagonist of The Browning Version is Crocker-Harris (Nicholas Farrell), an academic, usually described as desiccated, whose specialty is Greek literature. Known as "the Himmler of the lower fifth," he's an unpopular martinet whose boring daily regimen is further aggravated by a heart condition that is forcing him to leave his post at Harrow prematurely, thereby sacrificing a much-needed pension.

On his penultimate day at the school, the realisation that, despite his dedication, he isn't even a good teacher, underlines the scale of his failure – not only professionally but in his private life as well. His attractive wife Millie (Anna Chancellor) has been unfaithful to him for years and, in the play's final moments, commits an act of such heartless cruelty, there is no way his marriage could ever recover.

Prior to this final betrayal, though, and against all the odds, Crocker-Harris is given a small gift – Browning's translation of The Agamemnon – by young Taplow, one of his pupils (Liam Morton), a gesture so unexpected that it uncharacteristically reduces "the Crock," as he is also known, to tears.

It is one of the greatest scenes Rattigan has written and, as played by Farrell, one of the most heartbreaking. Rarely in the theatre have I sensed an audience being so collectively, emotionally shattered.

Angus Jackson's well-nuanced direction makes you realise all over again just how staggeringly well made the play is, how skillfully Rattigan constructs the narrative, and how each entrance and exit is seamlessly crafted. Even the very last line of the play is as unexpected as it is liberating. Only one thing continues to baffle me: Why on earth did Crocker-Harris ever marry in the first place?

If South Downs falls somewhat short of the greatness of The Browning Version, it is refreshing to see Hare trade some of his recent political platforming for writing of real tenderness, sensitivity and compassion. It is a minor piece, to be sure, cleanly directed by Jeremy Herrin and engagingly performed by its predominantly male cast. 

This double dose of drama, first seen at last year's Chichester Festival, is about as good as theatre in the West End gets.

 


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