South Downs / The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

David Hare and Terence Rattigan have a lot in common, apart from their public schools and knighthoods.

They write about pain, stoicism and, in these plays, they also write about pupils and teachers in the context of the classical touchstones of Alexander Pope and Aeschylus; intellectual integrity and domestic tragedy.

With Hare’s smartness and edginess and Rattigan’s cool, insistent  humanity, you'd be hard pushed to concoct a more ideal, or more rewarding, West End double act of literate drama (to add to the other current “quality” offerings of Michael Frayn, Richard Bean and David Edgar).

In South Downs, Hare’s surrogate, John Blakemore, brilliantly played by newcomer Alex Lawther, is cursed by his own cleverness, and drawn to the most popular, worldly boy in the school, whose mother, an actress (Anna Chancellor), comes to his rescue with tea and cake and sympathy; she’s appearing in a nondescript comedy, “Uncle Says No,” and he’s a fan.

The parallel act of kindness in The Browning Version is less interventionist, but equally profound. The punished mimic, Taplow, surprisingly played by Liam Morton as a podgy, over-age loser, gives his retiring housemaster, Andrew Crocker-Harris, a copy of Robert Browning’s translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.

The text has been Taplow’s nemesis, but also echoes the Clytemnestra-like carrying on of Crocker-Harris’s disappointed wife, Millie (Chancellor again, adding mischief to misery), with the science master (Mark Umbers), just as Hare uses the Pope lesson, and the very funny confirmation class, to explore the boys’ spirituality.

Put together in this way – Hare responded to a commission by the Terence Rattigan estate to find a better pairing for The Browning Version than the backstage farce Harlequinade, now rendered superfluous by Frayn’s Noises Off  – you get a composite picture of post-war public school life that alarms and satisfies in equal measure.

Nicholas Farrell as a heart-breakingly pent-up Crocker-Harris, “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth,” has to cope with his wife’s infidelities, the boys’ scorn and the humiliation of his dismissal.

There’s a scene of genius when the next, newly-wed incumbents of the Crocker-Harris job and flat pay a call and suggest their own rocky path ahead. They’re squabbling before they’ve even crossed the threshold.

Similarly, Hare can summon Pope’s rigour as a poet to describe the value of cages in allowing us to feel free. There’s a sense of life stretching dismally ahead in both plays, even as the bell rings for dinner, or chapel, or prep.    

To 22 July (0844 871 7622)