The arrival in the West End of David Hare’s tremendous new play South Downs on a double-bill with Terence Rattigan’s classic The Browning Version from last year’s Chichester Festival Theatre season marks a special moment in the history of the school play.
In the first, Hare charts the emergence into self-expression and the possibility of a kind of fulfilment of a clever but unhappy schoolboy, John Blakemore, in the early 1960s. In the second, dating from 1948, Rattigan sounds not dissimilar notes of courage and confidence in the predicament of a discarded schoolmaster, Andrew Crocker-Harris, unexpectedly surprised by a pupil’s gift.
Both plays are set in English public schools (Hare went to Lancing College in Sussex, Rattigan to Harrow) and share a brilliant, adaptable brown-panelled design by Tom Scutt that can allow the fluidity of Hare’s play in contrast to the rigid sitting room of the Crocker-Harris’s apartment.
In South Downs, talented newcomer Alex Lawther plays the tortured Blakemore with a mixture of confusion and submission that is deeply touching. Because the actress mother (Anna Chancellor) of his hero Duffield (Jonathan Bailey) speaks to him as an adult, he finds his own voice.
The boy Taplow (Liam Morton) in The Browning Version is given extra work on the last day of term by the humourless Crocker-Harris (Nicholas Farrell) whose wife (Chancellor laying double claim to being the new Coral Browne) is desperately clinging to her flickering affair with the science teacher (Mark Umbers); Crocker-Harris’s humiliation is completed by the news of a pension withdrawal and the down-grading of his speech day status.
The scene where this news breaks is slightly spoiled in Angus Jackson’s production by Andrew Woodall over-pitching the headmaster’s nastiness; his thuggishness drains the scene of its subtle cruelty and pathos.
Woodall’s much better as the English master in the Hare piece (directed by Jeremy Herrin) where he puts the boys through their paces on Alexander Pope. And Farrell plays Hare’s priest preparing the boys for confirmation with a run-down on the transubstantiation doctrine against which Blakemore rebels with sweet reasonableness.
In all, it’s a great evening of British theatre and Hare holds his own with Rattigan, providing lots of good jokes in suggesting that Blakemore’s anxiety about the bomb is not unrelated to his unhappiness at school. South Downs is as much a period piece, in its way, as The Browning Version, and fully earns its right to share the billing in the newly christened Harold Pinter.