Stage review: South Downs / Browning Version
South Downs / The Browning Version
Harold Pinter Theatre
IN A NUTSHELL
David Hare has written a compelling companion piece to Terence Rattigan's tale of the implosion of a dry and unpopular schoolmaster.
This precise and impeccable double bill of dramas puts on trial the routine cruelties of life in a boarding school.
Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version, the short tear-jerker about an unpopular, starched master's undoing by a gift from a pupil, has traditionally been married to Harlequinade, generally perceived to be the much weaker partner.
So, David Hare was commissioned by the Rattigan estate to write a more fitting companion piece, and the result is South Downs, based on his time at Lancing.
Whereas the focus of The Browning Version is the intrigue and feuding among the teachers, South Downs spends time with the pupils and, in particular, John Blakemore (Alex Lawther), an awkward, mournful boy full of questions and deeply unpopular as a result.
The piece is shot through with the threat of a new age. With Harold Wilson set to rule the Swinging Sixties, the masters are fearful that a way of life is about to be swept away less than 20 years after war did the same thing.
In South Downs, the richly nuanced Nicholas Farrell plays a fidgety clergyman and the wonderful Anna Chancellor, the free spirited mum of Blakemore's dashing protector.
The couple come to the fore in Rattigan's piece which is unflinching in its portrayal of a dead marriage stuck together by hate.
The unpopular, but slyly self aware Mr Crocker-Harris suffocates his wife with his emotional absence but she is equally culpable with her flagrant betrayals.
The toxic stand-off truce has to break and the trigger comes in the form of an unexpected parting gift from a pupil and the kind message within
Ultimately, South Downs is the more touching as it plays upon modern mores and anxieties.
The undoing of Mr Crocker Harris, while moving, cannot be entirely extracted from the unsympathetic surroundings and suffers as a result.
However, these studies of kindness and cruelty are perfectly weighted balanced, amplifying and exploring similar themes in a quite brilliant and illuminating fashion.
Until Jul 21, atgtickets.com