The idea of a West End double bill set in two all-boy public schools sounds as appealing as a night out with the Bullingdon Club. But South Downs/The Browning Version are/is (should I be talking of them as one?) was/were engrossing, engaging and emotional.
They’re both very far from a celebration of this most English of institutions dealing as they do with the rigid conformity and snuffing out of individuality that these schools encouraged, especially in the early 60s and post-war 40s when these plays were respectively set.
David Hare’s South Downs is set in a school in Sussex that’s clearly based on his old alma mater, Lancing, a school founded on religion. The play focuses on an earnest middle-class boy John Blakemore who struggles to find and fit in with ‘the norm’. He questions everything, including the bedrock of the school’s religious belief, the Eucharist. His only friend shuns him and the masters grow weary of his continuing curiosity. But he’s given a lifeline in the form of an outsider, an actress mother of the school’s popular boy. She understands, sympathises, even encourages his differences. And feeds him cake.
It’s an outstanding first time (big time) theatrical performance by Alex Lawther as Blakemore. He conveyed teenage angst in the most controlled, compelling way, his performance unleashing the stench of those polished floors and the uneasiness of being an outsider in such a ferocious, unforgiving environment with the merest catch in his voice or furrowed brow.
The Browning Version leaps over the desk as we see school master Andrew ‘Crock’ Crocker-Harris on the eve of his retirement from a top public school (a thinly veiled Harrow, which Terence Rattigan attended in the 1920s). He’s a conformist, fiercely loyal to the school that is happy to discard him like last term’s timetable. Crock’s bullied by the traditions and rules that he so ardently conforms to, but he’s not immune to emotion. His sniff upper lip, which had shown such enormous strength as his marriage, career and friendships fell apart around him, wobbles after a small kindness is shown to him by one of his pupils in a hugely moving scene that saw me shed a tear into my overpriced ice cream. Nicholas Farrell is utterly engrossing in the role, drawing you into the mind of Crocker-Harris, getting you to sympathise with his fate even if you know he’s the kind of person you’d avoid at a party.
The ideas of rules, tradition and conformity are laced through both Hare and Rattigan’s plays, as is the belief of accepting your own fate and acting out the character and life you’ve been given. That’s not to say either play throws its hands up in defeat at the cards life has dealt you. Both refer to change; in South Downs Jeremy Duffield – the school’s leading man – proposes debating the end of public schools and the bringing down of the monarchy, two very real concerns to the establishment as the 60s got swinging. And while the changes in The Browning Version are more domestic, they are no less cataclysmic to the people involved.
I loved the subtly of both plays; ideas, truths and beliefs bubble to the surface ready to be taken up by the audience and interpreted in their own way, rather than unleashed as a tidal wave on spectators leaving them dripping with the weight of the playwright’s Opinions.
A very fine double bill then, with some wonderful performances, not just from Lawther and Farrell. Anna Chancellor is a magnificent, imposing presence not just as actress Belinda Duffield, who she plays with a relish that doesn’t tip over into campuses, but also as desperate, bored, vindictive Millie Crocker-Harris in South Downs. Mark Umbers proves he’s more than just eye-candy as suave school master Frank Hunter in The Browning Version and Andrew Woodall straddles both plays with well-observed performances as an English teacher and headmaster respectively.