The Theatreguide.London Review
Downs and The Browning Version
Harold Pinter Theatre Spring-Summer 2012
Hurrah for double bills! Once a theatrical staple, they've gone out of fashion. But the one-hour play is a legitimate and viable form, and a program of two plays connected by subject, theme or tone can make for a very satisfying evening.
Terrence Rattigan's Browning Version was written to be part of such an evening. This time around, rather than its original companion piece the Rattigan estate and the producers commissioned David Hare to write an accompanying play, South Downs. Neither is a King Lear-sized major work, but each is a very beautiful miniature.
If you didn't know the author you could guess that South Downs was a staging of a very young writer's obligatory first novel, about a bright boy very unhappy at school until some small acts of kindness give him the tools to survive adolescence.
That it's actually written by a sixty-five year old only impresses us more with the older man's sympathy for every one of his characters and his recognition that lives are not made up of major turning points but small adjustments.
John Blakemore is a very bright – and therefore very unpopular – fourteen year old in a boy's school in the 1940s. A kindly master keeps an unobtrusive eye on him, an older boy offers him practical advice on how to play the game, and that boy's mother lets him see that there's an outside world that is likely to appreciate and sustain him once he gets through the inevitable and finite unpleasantness of school.
That's all. Blakemore isn't going to become popular or happy overnight. But he's going to survive, and live to find his happiness wherever it is waiting. Look at the play insensitively and you may think that nothing happens, but Hare – taking his cue from Rattigan – points us toward the small victories that make up real life.
Jeremy Herrin directs with a delicate but never precious touch, and there is a beautiful performance at the centre by very-young-looking Alex Lawther, nicely supported by Jonathan Bailey as the older boy and Anna Chancellor as the visiting mother who mixes amusement at adolescent melodrama with sympathy for its reality to the boys.
Rattigan's Browning Version is an acknowledged masterwork of this short form, matching the Hare play not only by having a school setting but by being a portrait of the tiny defeats and victories that make up a small life.
His hero, Andrew Crocker-Harris, is a failed teacher, disliked by the boys, disdained by his colleagues and cheated on by his wife. The day of his retirement inflicts a few final insults and injuries on him, which he stands up under with fragile dignity.
For some, says Rattigan, losing with dignity is the only victory available, and he makes us see and appreciate the strength of character that makes that possible.
I've seen stronger productions of the play than Angus Jackson's, with Crocker-Harrises who made me feel the man's pain and his core of strength more than Nicholas Farrell does here. There's too much external acting going on throughout, by Anna Chancellor as the teacher's bitter wife, Mark Umbers as her lover and Liam Morton as a schoolboy moved to a small gesture of kindness, as well as by Farrell, and you're too much aware of actors acting (not always well) rather than of characters feeling.
Still, Rattigan's play is powerful enough that some sense of what he intended comes through, and on a good night the actors might rise above themselves and do it full justice.
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