Swansong / The Browning Version (Bath)

Really good one-act plays are a rarity these days – lots of new plays are just too short – so it’s a treat, up to a point, to see Peter Hall’s seventh summer season in Bath kicking off with two real one-act corkers, one by Anton Chekhov, one by Terence Rattigan.

But they don’t mesh. Peter Bowles plays the lead in both, and does so with great panache and technical skill despite being totally miscast. It’s a gruesome exercise in watching an actor trying to prove he can go against the grain of his own natural talent.

In the half-hour Chekhov monologue (Swansong) he plays an old actor who’s got drunk at his own benefit performance and has been left behind in a dark theatre with his memories, jumbled quotations and the prompter. He plays him, quite incorrectly, as a “character”.

In the Rattigan, a 75-minute masterpiece of regret, betrayal and emotional upheaval as the old classics master, Andrew Crocker-Harris, “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth,” is stranded on the affection of a pupil (James Musgrave seems 20 years old as Taplow) who gives him a copy of Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon; Bowles comes on like a second-hand car salesman in a garish double-breasted pin-striped suit.

He couldn’t look more wrong if he’d traded that suit for a pink tutu and a feather boa coated with fairy dust. The dynamic of Rattigan’s play is shifted from being about the crumbling of the old order into something justifiably horrid as the junior master Frank Hunter (Charles Edwards) calls a halt to his adulterous affair with Crocker-Harris’ ghastly wife Millie (Candida Gubbins) and the new teaching couple move in.

It’s incredible to me that Peter Hall, who usually has such a reliable musical ear, should have a) got these two plays so wrong and b) put them in the wrong order. Neither piece punches the emotional weight it should, and I wasn’t the only person in the audience to think that James Laurenson as the old prompter should have been playing the actor.

The new Chekhov translation by Stephen Mulrine invents a spurious Aeschylean connection that fails completely to reverberate, and the brief bit of Griboyedev’s Wit from Woe at the end is as meaningless as it is gratuitous. Why didn’t they use Michael Frayn’s excellent version?