For the 100th anniversary of Terence Rattigan's birth, the playwright's estate asked David Hare to write a new play to accompany Rattigan's classic hit, The Browning Version. The resulting double bill is now playing in the West End.
Both are studies of the solitude and insecurity of public school life: one from the point of view of a precocious pupil; the other has a retiring master as its main subject.
Hare's hymn-drenched South Downs is set at his own alma mater, Lancing College, an Anglo-Catholic school in the 1960s. The suited boys talk with slightly peculiar, clipped 1930s-sounding accents, and their teachers are no less old-fashioned. As they wrestle with the ideas of Pope and transubstantiation, one young lad stands out. Blakemore has few friends, and far too many intelligent ideas. Not only is he argumentative and effeminate, as his prefect points out, he's just 14 and knows "what effeminate means. Not a good sign".
Jeremy Herrin's production perfectly captures the awkwardness of adolescence, the feeling that everyone else has charm and confidence and an understanding of a mysterious book called “The Rules Of Life", and somehow we've missed out. Alex Lawther plays the boy-hero with great skill. He's ably supported by Nicholas Farrell as a comic Rev attempting to coach the boys through confirmation, and Anna Chancellor, the sexy actress mother of another boy whose kindness finally unlocks enough self-awareness in Blakemore to set him off on a better path.
Chancellor and Farrell then take on very different roles in Rattigan's play. While the themes of self-loathing and loneliness continue, this time, they’re shown from the point of view of a dry Classics master, Mr Crocker-Harris. On the eve of his retirement, "Crock" learns he was secretly known as the Himmler of the Lower Fifth, and faces a pensionless future with his unfaithful, vindictive wife.
Farrell's performance in this brilliantly crafted play is exemplary. To accompany his academic's stoop, his elevated educator's jaw and pedagogue’s pedantry, he has developed a fantastic rhythm and timbre to his speech that perfectly evokes memories of a certain type of fantastically annoying teacher. Chancellor captures all his wife’s awkward social climbing, frustration and loneliness in this heart-breaking portrayal of failure-tinged lives.
Together, these two plays, each focussing on how one touch of kindness can lead to the self-inspection required to crack an otherwise closed shell provide a wonderfully classy evening’s entertainment.
South Downs/The Browning Version plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre, 6 Panton Street, St James, London, SW1 until 21 July. Tickets cost between £25 and £75. Visit www.browningversion.com to find out more. Londonist saw South Downs/The Browning Version on a review ticket from Cornershop PR.