The Terence Rattigan centenary celebration at Chichester Festival Theatre concludes with an intriguing double bill. His classic examination of unrealised potential The Browning Version was originally performed with the now forgotten comedy Harlequinade in 1948. Here it is paired with a new one-act play by David Hare, South Downs, commissioned by the Rattigan Estate as a tribute to Rattigan’s public-school masterpiece.
Set in 1962, Hare’s play focuses on the teenage angst of John Blakemore, an outsider at his Sussex boarding school as a scholarship boy from a relatively humble background whose introverted intellectual questioning puzzles teachers and alienates other pupils. Protesting about not being allowed to wear his CND badge and experiencing a crisis of religious faith, he struggles to fit in with the conformist culture of the conservative institution.
As Hare would have been the same age as John at that time when he was at Lancing School and he too had an absent sailor father, not to mention sharing his left-wing politics and interest in theatre, South Downs evidently draws on his own experience. But this account of the growing pains of a sensitive boy in an insensitive environment is conveyed with great balance and wit in Jeremy Herrin’s subtle production.
Alex Lawther makes an outstanding professional debut as Blakemore, capturing both his curiosity and vulnerability. Jonathan Bailey also impresses as the self-assured prefect he idolises, who with his actress mother (played with compassionate charm by Anna Chancellor) gives him emotional support. Nicholas Farrell is very amusing as the well-intentioned clerical housemaster and Andrew Woodall gives the English literature teacher a splendidly withering humour.
A sympathetic portrait of an unpopular pupil is followed by a play about an unpopular teacher which reaches tragic stature within a similarly repressive setting. The protagonist of The Browning Version, Andrew Crocker-Harris, is a failure: as a classics teacher he has never fulfilled his brilliant undergraduate potential, while his marriage to his unfaithful wife has turned love into loathing. The day before he leaves school due to ill-health everything comes to a head.
Rattigan’s heartbreaking drama is crafted with concisely meticulous detail. Before we see Crocker-Harris we receive an unflattering impression of him from a pupil, his wife and the teacher she is having an affair with, and it is only later when we finally see an emotional response from this pedantic disciplinarian to the years of hurt and humiliation he has endured that we start to sympathise with him. Angus Jackson’s restrained production gets the most out of this masterly account of the pathos of a wasted life, while also suggesting a possible redemption.
Nicholas Farrell gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Crocker-Harris, conveying his deep bitterness but also his essential decency as he accepts his own responsibility for things going awry. Anna Chancellor makes his wife’s snobbery and cruelty understandable as signs of desperate disappointment. As her science teacher lover Mark Umbers shows a guilty desire to put things right, in contrast to Andrew Woodall’s brusquely remote headmaster. And Liam Morton does very well in his role as the boy whose present of Robert Browning’s version of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon brings tears to the dried-up eyes of ‘the Crock’ – and to the eyes of the audience.