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Review Round-up: Hare Schools Rattigan at CFT

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Chichester Festival Theatre's critically-acclaimed double bill of David Hare South Downs and Terence Rattigan The Browning Version, directed by Jeremy Herrin and Angus Jackson, opened last night (14 September 2011, previews from 2 September) at the Minerva Theatre.

Rattigan's classic, The Browning Version sees master Andrew Crocker-Harris (Nicholas Farrell), brilliant scholar turned unpopular teacher, retire from a public school to teach in a crammer. His health is crumbling as is his marriage to the brittle Millie (Anna Chancellor).

South Downs is a new play by David Hare, written at the invitation of the Rattigan Estate as a response to The Browning Version. A meditation on learning, faith and teenage friendship, it is played in 1960s Britain against the backdrop of a country still fighting to maintain an established rule.

The double bill of South Downs and The Browning Version continues until 2 October 2011.

Maxwell Cooter

Jeremy Herrin’s production captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of a venerable institution trying to come to terms with the onset of a modern age. Alex Lawther perfectly captures the awkwardness of Blakemore well and there's good support too from Anna Chancellor as the sympathetic mother of a fellow pupil … Blakemore’s insight that we spend all our lives with someone that we dislike – ourselves – could almost serve as a motto for The Browning Version. Angus Jackson's fine production of Rattigan’s one-acter is a superb piece of theatre, completely banishing memories of the 50s film version. At its heart is a superb performance by Farrell as the desiccated failure of a classics master … Farrell captures every nuance of a man burdened by failure, disliked by the boys, not respected by the staff, yet seemingly unable to act in any other way … Farrell briefly brings out the humanity in the character before it's hidden again under the several layers of middle-class reserve.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

David Hare, who is more than merely a Leftwing polemicist, has written a sympathetic gem of a small play about a 1960s public school. This world premiere is stamped by an astonishing performance from young Alex Lawther as this unusual child. From the moment he speaks up in a lesson to defend a fellow pupil, Master Lawther inhabits the role with his every twitch, shrug and even glinting front tooth. This is acting as admirably precocious as the character he is portraying. Sir David’s play does not bang the Socialist Workers’ Party dustbin lid and shout about the evils of privilege and boarding. It considers, instead, the duty of civility we have not only to one another but also to ourselves. The play also doffs a cap to the dignity of those who seek to build a faith. Sir David, thank goodness, is not one of those awful hooligans who decries and mocks religious thought. He is grateful for its seriousness … Nicolas Farrell is excellent as the school’s chaplain.”

Michael Billington

“It takes a certain wild courage to write an accompaniment to an acknowledged one-act masterpiece like Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version. But David Hare has taken on the task and the result is a work that is perfectly complementary to the Rattigan … It is actually a beautifully melancholic study of the self-dislike many of us experience in our teens … The Browning Version is a surefire play that always touches the heart and Angus Jackson's production boasts another superb performance from Nicholas Farrell … He has the right bony austerity, a pedagogue's slight stoop yet also displays flashes of ironic humour that hint at what the hero once was … With strong backing from Anna Chancellor as his cruel but disappointed wife, and Mark Umbers as her lover, this is as good a revival as you could wish for. But what the evening as a whole offers is a dual portrait of the sadness beneath the wainscoted traditions of public-school life.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

David Hare has heroically stepped into the breach and written a new companion piece for The Browning Version, South Downs … Rattigan’s play is undoubtedly the greater. But Hare emerges with honour. He authentically captures the atmosphere of public school life, with its routine small cruelties among the boys, and awkward and in some case actively malign teachers who seem unable to relate to the adolescents in their care … Jeremy Herrin’s production captures the atmosphere of a public school with perceptive detail and there are some superb performances … Alex Lawther is memorably miserable and mixed-up as the teenage hero; Nicholas Farrell is hilarious as an awkward clergyman teacher … and Anna Chancellor is radiantly kind and wise … This is one of the warmest plays Hare has written, and a moving tribute from a fine dramatist to an even greater one. Meanwhile Angus Jackson’s production of The Browning Version is well nigh faultless. Farrell … is almost unbearably moving in his stiff dignity and sudden tears as Andrew Crocker-Harris … Chancellor is both desperate and cruel … while all the smaller roles are played with distinction. You leave the theatre in no doubt that you have watched a great production of a play of extraordinary depth, compassion and psychological perception.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“In Jeremy Herrin's well-orchestrated production the fire and ice of adolescent interactions are captured neatly. Alex Lawther is convincingly melancholic as Blakemore, and Jonathan Bailey is magnetic as Duffield … After the interval The Browning Version ensnares us, as brilliantly excruciating as ever in its picture of a tragic kind of Englishness that revolves around smothering feelings. Rattigan is eloquent about English restraint and repression - and about the pain for which they are a mask. Nicholas Farrell's Crocker-Harris is a crumpled tyrant, tough yet vulnerable. The raw performance potently conveys the character's suffering. Directed by Angus Jackson, the crucial incidents are precisely choreographed, and Farrell has fine support from Mark Umbers as Millie's lover and Liam Morton as clumsy pupil Taplow. This is a beautiful account of a moving one-act play.”

Libby Purves
The Times

"You can almost smell the chalk, old books, sherry, testosterone and disillusion. As a rule this short play is paired with Masquerade, but here David Hare was invited to write an hour-long curtain-raiser, to complement Rattigan’s themes without direct echo. In South Downs, hauling out memories of his own Lancing College years, he does that with oblique skill … Politics loom larger than in Rattigan’s play … Hare… does not know how to handle a troubled, intellectual, leftish, questioning 14-year-old who walks a fine line 'between precocity and insolence'. A mother (Anna Chancellor) helps … Hare sets the mood but steals no thunder from the Rattigan, which after the interval works its usual magic, under Angus Jackson’s direction and with a neatly adapted design linking the two schools … Chancellor… deploys a chill and minxy charm… in her malicious demolition of Crocker-Harris. This is a perfectly paced and powerful rendering of this remarkable play, right up to that last moment that Rattigan always offers: the final laugh in the face of defeat. Farrell does it with style."

- Natalie Generalovich


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