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South Downs / The Browning Version

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The final stage of Chichester's Rattigan celebration couples his one-act play of thwarted ambition and loveless marriage with a new play from David Hare looking at life in a public school about 15 years later, at the start of 60s.

Hare's opener has as its main theme that of Blakemore, a friendless boy at a public school (his outsider status rather heavy-handedly emphasised by his perpetual reading of L'Etranger), his struggles to come to terms with the pointlessness of the school rules, the dislike of his fellow pupils and his struggles with the Anglicanism that lies at the heart of the school's ethos. 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, Nicholas Farrell as his sympathetic but rather baffled housemaster and Andrew Woodall as the regimented English teacher, witheringly dismissing all modern poetry.

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, his life the “muscular twitching of a corpse” as he himself puts it. Leaving the school due to ill-health and subjected to petty humiliations by the headmaster and his own wife, he is offered a brief glimpse of redemption by a pupil's act of kindness only to have snatched away.

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. His life bounded by the rigour of the rules that Blakemore is trying to break. Farrell briefly brings out the humanity in the character before it's hidden again under the several layers of middle-class reserve. There’s solid support too from Chancellor as the unhappy wife and Mark Umbers as the young science teacher who has the same elements of self-loathing.

- Maxwell Cooter


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