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South Downs/The Browning Version

Published 25 April 2012

What a renaissance Rattigan is enjoying, though as we move further from his centenary year, I fear the love for the previously unfashionable dramatist may dissolve and drift away.

His short boarding school-set play The Browning Version is the latest London revival – coming to the capital via current hotbed of transfers, Chichester Festival Theatre – following Olivier Award winners After The Dance and Flare Path. It should be met with equal enthusiasm.

There is such sorrow at its heart, such emptiness. Nicholas Farrell’s run down teacher Crocker-Harris is the perfect husk of a man. So shell-like is he that you could lift him to your ear and hear the sea, though even that tide, I imagine, would sound exhausted and, dare I say, washed up.

He is a man who has let life crush him without a fight. Always happy to come second, he has gradually but unerringly been eroded. Anna Chancellor, as his wife, is the fighter. Equally unhappy, she desperately wants to battle, to see life return. Their life is a happiness vacuum.

Yet they are compelling to watch. You want to give both a stern talking to and a hug for different reasons. When the act of kindness comes – both The Browning Version and its new David Hare-penned companion piece South Downs feature such an act – its reaction is less like a champagne cork being popped than a radiator being bled; the warmth slowly but surely starts to seep back in.

South Downs is an easier, sweeter tale, though no less driven by the rules of society, what may or may not be said, the vagaries of love and being oneself.

Rather than focussing on a teacher, it follows a child at boarding school. He is an outsider, doesn’t understand the rules, thirsts for answers and is, to summarise, a teenage boy trying to find himself and his place.

Newcomer Alex Lawther brings a beautiful naivety to the role, being inquisitive without annoying and balancing delicate frailty with an unquestioning belief in his right to be. Jonathan Bailey combines the cocky swagger of a prefect with genuine heart, Farrell brings warmth to the role of a priestly teacher, while Chancellor swaps anger and bitterness for a touching, caring, motherly turn as an actress with a talent for counselling.

In solitude, both plays are perfect snippets of humanity, of life taking its toll and tiny moments making big impacts. Together they are as complementary as Pimms and lemonade or willow and leather, topping and tailing life, exposing its hardships but revealing its hope, warning and warming simultaneously.


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