Who says our school days are the best of our lives? This double bill of academia-set dramas by David Hare and Terence Rattigan, which transfers to London following a critically acclaimed outing in Chichester last autumn, pungently evokes the anxieties, loneliness and confusion that they can involve for both pupils and teachers.
Hare’s new play South Downs, specifically written to mark the 100th anniversary of Rattigan’s birth to replace that author’s own short farce Harlequinade as curtain-raiser to The Browning Version, is an aching expression of youthful isolation and intense, frustrated feeling in an uncertain and bewildering world. Rattigan’s 1948 work focuses on the plight of a dedicated and impassioned teacher facing early retirement, impoverishment and the conviction that, professionally and personally, his life has been a failure. Both pieces are almost unbearably cruel, yet profoundly compassionate.
Set in 1962, Hare’s drama sees 14-year-old public schoolboy Blakemore (Alex Lawther) struggling to find his place in the microcosm of school, with its byzantine systems of one-upmanship and arcane unspoken rules, and in wider society. “We live in a semi-detached,” he shamefacedly confesses to a boy he tries desperately hard to be friends with, only to be scornfully told of his awful socially stigmatizing secret, “Everyone knows that.”
Disturbed by class inequalities and traumatised by the idea of the atom bomb, this precociously intelligent boy has caused consternation by writing a fervent letter to the papers, and runs into frustrating conversational cul-de-sacs with both the irascible English master (Andrew Woodall) who tries to teach him about Alexander Pope and his contention that “only within a cage do we find freedom,” and with the school vicar, Rev Eric Dewley aka “Eric the Hysteric” (Nicholas Farrell), who is attempting to coax him through his confirmation classes. Only with Duffield (Jonathan Bailey), a charismatic prefect, and his elegant, charming mother (Anna Chancellor), who takes the unhappy Blakemore to tea where he basks in her sensitive attentions, does he find some solace. And even then, when she makes him a gift of a Fortnum’s fruitcake and he ekes it out like a holy sacrament, he’s in danger of fetishising this precious morsel of tenderness.
Faith and politics bubble beneath the personal concerns in a drama that is beautifully directed by Jeremy Herrin and, at just over an hour in length, is extraordinarily rich and satisfying. It more than earns its place alongside The Browning Version, a devastating account of unhappiness and unfulfilment that, in Angus Jackson’s production, is agonisingly moving.
Farrell’s Andrew Crocker-Harris is being forced from his job as a classics master by illness, and learns that not only is he to be denied a pension, but the headmaster Dr Frobisher wants to curtail his farewell speech due to his unpopularity with the boys. While the teacher known as “the Crock” by his students is stoic about the fact that he is not liked, it is only on the eve of his departure that Frobisher lets slip that he is also an object of terror who has earned the horrifying nickname “the Himmler of the lower fifth.” Moreover, Crocker-Harris’s wife Millie (Chancellor) is having an affair under her husband’s nose with another master. And when a pupil makes him a gift of a volume of Browning’s version of ‘Agamemnon’ – the Greek drama in which the title character is murdered by his wife and her lover – MIllie snatches the crumb of comfort away from her weeping husband with gasp-inducing malice.
Ultimately, the play raises a small, tattered but bravely fluttering standard to courage, integrity and dignity. Farrell’s performance is gut wrenching, his aridity quenched by hot tears and anguish and loss, but across both plays the acting all round is exquisite. Top marks could scarcely be accolade enough.