Originally staged at Chichester Festival Theatre, this double bill saw one of Terrence Rattigan’s most enduring plays, the one-act The Browning Version, revived as part of the tributes to the playwright’s centenary year (cf. revivals of Cause Celebre, Flare Path, etc.
Rather than pairing it with Harlequinade, the other Rattigan one-act play it had originally been played with, though, CFT prefaced the play with a new, companion piece from contemporary playwright David Hare. South Downs, like The Browning Version, is set within the walls of an English public school. Change is similarly encroaching: in Hare’s story, it is of the forthcoming Wilson government and the socio-economic change from the white heat of technology, whereas the world outside Rattigan’s school is still embroiled in war.
The two pieces complement each other extremely well – far more than I would have expected, and I suspect far better than a revival of Harlequinade could do.
South Downs’ story is of an awkward, unwittingly precocious boy whose relentless pursuit of answers makes him unpopular with his teachers and his fellow pupils. As Blakemore, Alex Lawther gives the performance of the night: he is frustrating to thos onstage while being endearing to us, demonstrates ferocious intelligence without ever seeming arrogant.
But he is not the only pupil who is looking to the future: prefect Jeremy Duffield, played with effortless charm by Jonathan Bailey, sees the social changes that the 1960s will provide, and is able to use his charismatic influence to make sure the issues are allowed within the debating society. The generosity he shows to Blakemore – both in person and by introducing the younger man to Duffield’s actress mother, who he idolises – is perhaps easy to overlook when said mother, played by Anna Chancellor, takes the stage and effortlessly steals the show.
There is much to think about – and just as much to laugh at, having more hilarious lines than many a modern comedy – in Hare’s piece. Jeremy Herrin’s direction elicits some beautiful performances, although its frequent scene changes do introduce a bugbear of mine, where actors drop out of character as soon as the spotlight dims, turning instantly into stagehands as they shift chairs and benches in the halflight.
After the interval, Angus Jackson takes over directorial duties for the one-room set of The Browning Version, as teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris (Nicholas Farrell) struggles to cope with his last days in his post, yet still has to suffer further indignity: no longer able to ignore that his scheming wife (Anna Chancellor) has been cuckolding him with a younger teacher; the pension that he had hoped would enable him to take early requirement has been refused; and realising that he is hated by his pupils.
Farrell’s Crocker-Harris is a stoic, downturned man, and as such his reaction to the gift which gives the play its title (a translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon by Robert Browning) is more muted, less bucholic, than many productions attempt. In the process, it becomes more moving and powerful.
As Crocker-Harris’ philandering wife Millie, Anna Chancellor ensures that, while the character may do hateful things, she is not without her own traces of humanity. And as the curtain closes on the second play of the evening, it is Chancellor who will remain in the memory as providing the greatest range of the evening.