Thursday, 17 May 2012

Theatre Reviews: 18 May

Twinning Rattigan with Hare has resulted in a perfect coalition

Written by Sam Taylor


'Will this new play be good or bad? Nothing else matters.' As The Browning Version transfers to the West End from last year's sell-out season at Chichester, Terence Rattigan's famous question is fi rmly answered. The play is five-star good. Previous stagings have often fallen fl at, not least as they were usually twinned with Harlequinade, another Rattigan short that lacks humour and invariably worked as a turn-off in the first half.

The Rattigan estate invited David Hare to write a new complimentary piece for last year's centenary and the result, South Downs, more than holds its own. Also a 'school' play, it is set in the early 1960s, against Rattigan's 1940s, and centres on Lancing College as opposed to Harrow. In both cases, the playwrights were writing from boyhood experience, although Hare has been at pains to point out that it is not a roman-à-clef.

He is often thought of as a drum-banging leftie, but Hare appeals to a broad church in the painting of his young protagonist, Blakemore (Alex Lawther), the scholarship boy from a semi-detached, with an absent father and even more absent friends. It is aremarkable performance from the newcomer.

Anna Chancellor is simply mesmerising. Firstly as the liberal-hearted mother of Hare's prefect, Duffield, played pitch-perfect by Jonathan Bailey. And, more importantly, as the complex, romantically frustrated shrew of a wife, Millie Crocker-Harris, in Rattigan's classic. Chancellor has set the bar very high and it will be a brave actress who takes on this role after she has bored of it.

Crocker-Harris, 'the Crock', has been played expertly before, most notably by Peter Bowles, but it is Nicholas Farrell who makes us fully grasp the sheer depth of this character's humiliation. There are times when the pain is almost palpable. By contrast, Farrell's role as Hare's priest trying to explain transubstantiation to the boys, is black humour at its finest.

Both plays share a brilliant set design, although each has a separate director: Jeremy Herrin for South Downs and Angus Jackson for The Browning Version. Jackson has received much critical acclaim for his handling of this oldtimer, and all of it deserved. If you buy only one theatre ticket this year, buy this one. It offers a chance to see that rare thing: a perfect coalition.

Until 21 July at Harold Pinter Theatre, London: 0844-871 7627,


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