Yesterday, I went to see the excellent Hare/Rattigan double bill at the Harold Pinter Theatre. David Hare’s South Downs, commissioned to replace Harlequinade as the second play in the The Browning Version double bill, fits perfectly with the Terence Rattigan play; both capture an evocative snapshot of boarding school life in a bygone era. Hare wrote the play “as a tribute to Rattigan, and aims to share common themes with his”, and I think that in South Downs he has achieved his aims. I’ve been a fan of Rattigan’s work since I saw the excellent production of After the Dance at the National Theatre and this double bill is one of the best Rattigan productions that I have seen. Both plays chart the emotional journey of the central character and the great effect that that small acts of kindness have on them; while in South Downs this is a gradual change in The Browning Version the action takes place over one evening and there is a more sudden galvanisation.
In South Downs, although all of the performances were excellent, Alex Lawther as Blakemore stood out due to his absorbing performance. While giving a fantastically introverted portrayal, of an awkward boy struggling to cope in the regimentally conformist world of 1960s Lancing College, Lawther never struggled to keep all eyes on him. The sparse staging allowed for quick scene changes which kept the action flowing as we moved from classroom to changing room to mother’s sitting room and back, and the parquet flooring and wooden panels effectively evoked the atmosphere of a school.
In contrast, The Browning Version remains in one schoolmaster’s room for the entirety of the play, as different characters enter and leave Crocker-Harris’ world. Nicholas Farrell gave a nuanced, understated performance as the emotionally repressed Crocker-Harris; with the smallest of gestures he was able to convey the underlying emotions behind the carefully constructed façade. He captured the vulnerability underneath Crocker-Harris’ hard exterior, best demonstrated in the moments when he breaks down at the gift of a book from one of his students. However, the shutters soon come down again and once he has regained his composure we are back to the stiff upper lip that is integral to all of Rattigan’s plays. There are only two weeks left to catch this double bill at the Harold Pinter Theatre, but it is well worth a trip.