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A CurtainUp London London Review
South Downs &The Browning Version

There’s a very fine line between precocity and insolence and you just crossed it. — Master in South Downs
South Downs and The Browning Version
Anna Chancellor as Millie Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version
(Photo:Johan Persson)
Terence Rattigan’s public school set play The Browning Version is usually paired with another play Harlequinade, but for the centenary of Rattigan’s birth David Hare was asked to write a companion piece. The result is South Downs, a play set in a Sussex public school in the 1960s not dissimilar to Lancing College where Hare was himself educated. Both plays have transferred from Chichester to London’s former Comedy Theatre now called the Harold Pinter, who incidentally went to a grammar school not a public school like Hare and Rattigan.

South Downs focuses on a boy who doesn’t fit in with the others, a remarkable performance by Alex Lawther. He's John Blakemore a misfit in the hot house boarding school because he is both bright and his parents live in a semi-detached house, qualities that single him out from the rest of the boys. Watch out for nominations for Lawther as Best Newcomer this year.

Although he academically helps Colin Jenkins (Bradley Hall) in class, Blakemore doesn’t get the friend and confidant he longs for. He falls foul of the school’s emphasis on religion when he asks why they are allowed to wear religious symbols but he isn’t allowed the badge of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Although the headmaster, the Reverend Eric Dewley (Nicholas Farrell), asks Jeremy Duffield (Jonathan Bailey) to look out for Blakemore, it doesn’t really change his life until he meets Duffield’s famous actress mother Belinda Duffield (Anna Chancellor).

South Downs, though not a great play in comparison to the Browning Version, is an appropriate curtain raiser for the heavyweight Rattigan. Instead of pupils as the focus, Rattigan takes a downtrodden schoolmaster, a magnificently cantankerous Andrew Crocker-Harris (an almost unrecognisable Nicholas Farrell) who is treated badly by both the arrogant, obnoxious headmaster Dr Frobisher (Andrew Woodall) and by his cheating wife, the even more arrogant and obnoxious Millie Crocker-Harris (Anna Chancellor). It is a brilliant play because of the clever plot switches which see our sympathy change horses in the course of the play. A gift from a boy John Taplow (Liam Morton) to the retiring Classics master touches him only for the sentiment to be destroyed by his evil wife who gets her comeuppance when her lover, the very handsome Frank Hunter (Mark Umbers) recognises that this is a woman who is despicable and callous.

Both plays are about what passes as bullying —whether it is pupil on pupil, or staff on staff, or staff on pupils— and the boarding school atmosphere that encourages this vulnerability. We see Mr Crocker-Harris humiliated by the Head, both in refusing to grant him a pension when he has to retire through ill health and by his rightful speech being displaced at the Speech Day by a speech from a more popular sports teacher. The Crocker-Harrises will lose their home to the incoming master and his wife Mr and Mrs Peter Gilbert (Rob Heaps and Amanda Fairbank Hynes). Both plays make the case for the abolition of the public school system in human if not the academic terms . The Browning Version alludes to a verse translation of Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy Agamemnon by Robert Browning.

Both school sets see the gold lettered, wooden honours boards. The Browning Version set is very detailed as the cramped Crocker-Browns’ sitting room. The Hare play makes use of beautiful hymn tunes sung by boys.

Anna Chancellor has a very fine night as she plays first the sympathetic Belinda Duffield and then the poisonous, resentful and disappointed Millie Crocker-Harris. Nicholas Farrell is deeply moving when Crocker-Harris tries to contain emotion. Jeremy Herrin directs the 1960s play and Angus Jackson the more formal Rattigan which is set in the late 1940s. It’s a thoroughly good evening in the theatre!

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South Downs and The Browning Version
Written by David Hare/Terence Rattigan
Directed by Jeremy Herrin/Angus Jackson

Starring: Nicholas Farrell, Anna Chancellor, Andrew Woodall, Mark Umbers, Alex Lawther, Jonathan Bailey
With: Bradley Hall, Tom Spink, Liam Morton, Rob Heaps, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes
Set by Tom Scutt
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Composer: Paul Englishby
Running time: south Downs One hours and 5 minutes then an interval and The Browning Version One hour 10 minutes.
Box Office: 0844 871 7615
Booking to 21st July 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th April 2012 performance at the Harold Pinter, Panton Street, London SW1y $DN (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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