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The Browning Version & Swansong (Cambridge – tour)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Peter Bowles is the undoubted star of the Chekhov and Rattigan double bill – but the rest of the cast measure up to the standard he sets. Swansong presents us with the stage of an empty theatre, onto which staggers an old, drunk actor who has just given his final, benefit performance in Calcas – the double-dealing priest who stirs up trouble during Agamemnon's siege of Troy.

Bowles gives a bravura show of acting as the old man, frightened by the blank future before him, who suddenly acquires an audience in the equally aged prompter (James Laurenson) disturbed from his (extremely unofficial) dressing-room snug by the actor's noise. Stephen Mulrine's translation blends Pushkin into Shakespeare without a stich in the seam showing.

The Browning Version is more than a well-made play; it's a extremely good one. Drier-than-dust Andrew Crocker-Harris, retiring classics master at a public school in the late 1940s, is immensely moving in Bowles' characterisation, softly-spoken, tensely bodied with only the relaxation or tautening of a facial muscle or hand movement to give away the ferocity of the volcano of emotions he has dorced himself to suppress over a career of blighted promise.

Copper-headed and copper beech colour-clad, Candida Gubbins is absolutely credible as his frustrated wife Millie, building fantasy paths to a past which was never quite as good as she would have liked and a present and future which will lead her nowhere. Charles Edwards is equally good as the younger science master in whom she has planted her hopes, though this soil is not quite as stable as she presumes.

Laurenson as the school's principal gives a masterly sketch of a man adeptly steering his course between the demands of governors, parents, pupils and – very much in fourth place – staff. The just-weds who will replace the Crocker-Harrises are Elizabeth Crarer and Peter Sandys-Clarke, a youthful couple who can hardly wait to make the place their own. James Musgrove as Taplow, the catalyst for the whole drama, shows us the carefree arrogance of a mid-teenager just arriving at educational and empathetic crossroads.

The whole production is vintage Peter Hall, contained within (for The Browning Version) a set by Christopher Woods which reflects the aridity of the Crocker-Harrises' life, spent within a house never quite managing to achieve the status of a home. Of course, Agamemnon was apart from his wife for over ten years, and sacrificed their child in the pursuit of success. But then, vengeance doesn't always have to wield a knife.


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