It is a cliché in sporting circles to refer to a match as being a game of two halves but for this unusual touring production (courtesy of Peter Hall and the Theatre Royal, Bath) certainly demonstrates that bipartite nature.
We open with a very slight work – Swansong. Chekhov reportedly wrote this one-act hymn to the theatre in an hour and, to be honest, it shows. What could be a moving farewell to the stage from a fading actor turns into something slightly cloying and predictable. Take out the Shakespeare and Pushkin and you are left with a self-pitying drunk. The frequently clunky translation by Stephen Mulrine does little help the two actors. They are forced to use well-worn phrases and overblown imagery – this might be a faithful representation of what was in the original text – but here does not ring true at all. Peter Bowles does his best as the aging actor but cannot save us from a less than satisfying opening salvo.
The Browning Version is, thankfully, a stronger piece of writing from that master of the repressed English middle-classes – Terence Rattigan. Again we have a central character coming to terms with the end of his career and this time the text is filled with wit, pathos and drama allowing the audience to relax into a fulfilling short play.
Bowles takes the central role of Andrew Crocker-Harris and whilst he captures the stiffness and repressed nature of the disappointed schoolmaster, he sometimes falls into the trap of over-playing his hand and his performance is sometimes too obviously a performance rather than the heightened naturalism which, for me, is the hallmark of Rattigan’s writing.
Candida Gubbins works well as his manipulative wife – her coolness and determination piercing the hearts of those around her. Her lover Frank is equally well-played by Charles Edwards – a flawed yet well-intentioned man trapped in an almost impossible situation.
I can only see one reason why these two short works were chosen to be played together – they both reference Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. This does not, however, strike me as sufficient to justify their juxtaposition. The overall feeling is of a mismatch and that is never going to satisfy an audience.
Very much an evening of two halves – a 2-star Chekhov and a 4-star Rattigan. I only wish Sir Peter had looked for another companion piece to The Browning Version – it would have made for a much more successful event.