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South Downs and The Browning Version Review

Following a hugely successful run at The Chichester Souths Downs and The Browning VersionFestival, Rattigan’s The Browning Version and its new companion piece by David Hare, South Downs, have transferred to The Harold Pinter Theatre.

David Hare was approached to write a new curtain-raiser for the 100th anniversary of Rattigan’s birth. Hare explains in the programme that “My play is written as a tribute to Rattigan, and aims to share common themes with his”.

Two one act plays, featuring two acts of kindness.

South Downs is set in a school in 1962. Hare was at Lancing in the early 60s and gives us a fascinating personal insight into the loneliness, trials and constant struggles of growing up in an English public boarding school.

Our hearts break as we meet 14-year-old John Blakemore, played superbly by 16-year-old Alex Lawther. Blakemore is bright and questioning, unlike so many of the other pupils. He refuses to keep a low profile just in order to fit in, and speaks up on many occasions wanting to discuss and demanding answers to all the big issues that are important to him, making him very unpopular in the process. He doesn’t want to adhere to rules simply because they are the rules. He questions the rules. This is done with no trace of disobedience or impertinence, just his simple boyish curiosity. He is ridiculed by the other boys for living in a semi-detached house and having a sailor as a father.

Prefect Jeremy Duffield luckily takes an interest in Blakemore. Worried that his unhappiness is reflecting badly on him, he tries to steer Blakemore towards popularity and an easier school life. He too has an inquiring mind and enjoys being part of the debating team, but advises Blakemore to conform for his own benefit. Duffield is played by handsome Jonathan Bailey, who captures perfectly a confident young man, happy in his own skin – a stark contrast to Blakemore.
When Duffield learns of Blakmore’s admiration for his actress mother, he orchestrates an introduction, which turns out to be a life-changing event for Blakemore.

If South Downs depicts how the pupils view their masters, in contrast The Browning Version explores these perceptions from the teachers’ perspective.

Rattigan, who was a pupil at Harrow, transports us to a public school in the south of England in 1940s. We meet classics master Andrew Crocker Harris on the eve of his retirement. Troubled by a heart condition he is leaving to teach at a smaller school with less pressure.

Looking back at his teaching career, he is suddenly plagued with regret that his teaching style has made him unpopular with the students. Surviving in an unhappy marriage, with his wife having an open affair with the science teacher Frank Hunter, the headteacher is adamant in not marking his leaving in any way special and the humiliation of being refused a pension from the school, Crocker Harris is at an all-time low.

A school boy, Tatlow, who has been having extra lessons with Crocker Harris, brings him a gift of the Browning version of ‘Agamemnon’. This act of kindness is perfectly timed. However his wife cruelly claims all is not what it seems, leading to disastrous consequences.

Nicholas Farrell is excellent as Crocker Harris and Mark Umbers gives a dynamic performance as Frank Hunter. Anna Chancellor gives stand-out performances as glamorous actress Belinda Duffield and conniving Mille Crocker-Harris.

South Downs/The Browning Version is an absolutely unmissable treat of an evening.

Booking From: Thursday, 19th April 2012
Booking Until: Saturday, 21st July 2012
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm

Harold Pinter Theatre
Panton Street

Review by Joanna Forest

Sunday 6th May, 2012