Tuesday 27 September 2011

Theatre Review: South Downs/The Browning Version (Minerva, Chichester)

Chichester Festival Theatre’s Terence Rattigan centenary season concludes in the Minerva with Angus Jackson’s production of The Browning Version, which is paired in this outing with a newly commissioned work by David Hare called South Downs - a “response” to Rattigan’s play, directed by Jeremy Herrin. Rattigan’s venerable 1948 one-acter was originally performed with the author’s Harlequinade, an amusing-enough trifle on theatrical themes. Hare’s play proposes itself as a more substantial and relevant curtain-raiser, however. And it is a decent enough effort, albeit one that looks somewhat pallid compared to Rattigan’s play, and the intensity of emotional response that it is still able to generate.

South Downs isn’t in any sense a radical revisioning of Rattigan’s text but rather a play that draws on themes and issues from The Browning Version: it includes, for example, complementary riffs on teaching, on the benefits (or otherwise) of likeability and charm, and on the role of performance in daily life. And, most obviously, like Rattigan’s play, South Downs unfolds in a boys’ school and pivots upon an act of benevolence that redeems the protagonist’s sense of alienation. In this case, the year is 1962 and the focus is on a 14-year-old pupil named John Blakemore (Alex Lawther), an unhappy boy whose friendship with another pupil, Jenkins (Bradley Hall), is undergoing strain. Dismissed as “showing off,” Blakemore’s endless class-room questioning has pretty much alienated the rest of his classmates as well. But he draws the sympathetic attention of an older boy, Duffield (Jonathan Bailey), whose actress mother (a wry, warm Anna Chancellor) invites Blakemore to tea and offers him a few valuable life-lessons over Fortnum & Mason cake.

Herrin’s spare production conjures the atmosphere of the school, with its petty squabbles and tensions, without fuss, and boasts some strong performances, especially from the younger cast members, most of whom are making their professional debuts. There is perhaps a strain of sentimentality to Hare’s characterisation of the troubled but bright, Camus-reading and CND-supporting Blakemore - the playwright’s hymn to his own sensitivity, intelligence and beautiful alienation at this age, perhaps? But Lawther’s skilful performance cuts through this conception. And Andrew Woodall brings his customary wit and presence to a scene - the play’s best - in which he pompously lectures the students on Alexander Pope.

Hare, who last month was quoted as saying that his recent work has become more journalistic because “there hasn’t been time to dramatise it,” mercifully avoids a journalistic approach in South Downs. But the play isn’t really dramatic either: it lacks a sense of urgency and momentum. Still, the playwright’s gift for enjoyable sharp put-downs is in good form, and if some moments here feel bogus and rigged, others prove quietly affecting.

South Downs sustains interest while it lasts, but when compared with the grace, elegance and cutting emotional insights of The Browning Version Hare’s play simply shrivels up and blows away. No case needs to be made for the greatness of The Browning Version these days, but Jackson’s staging is just about as fine an account as you’re likely to experience. Intimate and full of feeling, it centres on a superb performance from Nicholas Farrell (who’s not given quite enough to do in South Downs) as the unloved schoolmaster Crocker-Harris, dubbed “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth.” As his wife, Millie, Anna Chancellor does well enough to convey the bitterness of a woman trapped in an entirely unsuitable marriage - though her performance ultimately lacks the heft of Judi Dench’s exquisite work in the 1985 TV version. But the always-watchable Mark Umbers brings a beautiful clarity, conviction and moral force to his role as her lover, while, as the student Taplow, Liam Morton pitches his performance exactly right. The scene in which Taplow’s unanticipated gift briefly succeeds in piercing Crocker-Harris’s reserve is, as it should be, the very moving highlight of an altogether excellent production.

South Downs/The Browning Version runs for 2 hours 35 minutes and is booking until 8th October. Further information at the Chichester Festival Theatre website.

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