South Downs/The Browning Version, Minerva, Chichester
No Naughty Bits, Hampstead Theatre, London
Wild Bride, Lyric Hammersmith, London
So, boy, what do Hare and Rattigan teach us? The repressed and reactionary dimensions of British public school life are laid bare in an inspired pairing of plays written 60 years apart
Sunday 18 September 2011
David Hare has written a new curtain-raiser, South Downs, to accompany Terence Rattigan's fam-ously poignant one-act play, The Browning Version, from 1948. Making an absorbing Chichester Festival double bill, both plays are set in English public schools of yesteryear, where anyone who doesn't conform to the norm will have to develop a defensive carapace.
Set in a reactionary, Anglo-Catholic establishment in 1962 (when Hare was at Lancing), South Downs centres on a scholarship boy, Blakemore, who is reviled by his coevals as a swot and a show-off, possibly a "queer". Blakemore's only friend ditches him. But things look up when the actress mother of a popular prefect shows him some kindness in a teatime tête-a-tête, sympathising with his anti-conservative impulses.
I'm not sure that Hare's sequence of short scenes add up coherently. I remain puzzled as to whether or not Anna Chancellor's Belinda, the well-meaning but preening actress mother is supposed be a seduction or a saving grace. It's ultimately unclear whether she has nudged Blakemore towards braver, self-containment or whether he is heading for a breakdown. Such unanswered questions make South Downs intriguing. After all, Hare isn't obliged to spell everything out, especially when Rattigan's characters strive so hard to keep their feelings under wraps.
The piece is fluidly staged by Jeremy Herrin on a shadowy, near-bare stage, softly punctuated by hymn-singing. The intimations of repressed homosexuality might have been explored fractionally more. Nonetheless, Herrin has, characteristically, coaxed excellent performances from his young actors, not least Alex Lawther as Blakemore who makes his professional debut here with extraordinary poise.
South Downs is funny, too, with petulant outbursts from the outflanked bully Gunter (another newcomer, Jack Elliott) and with Andrew Woodall on corking form as a browbeating English master.
Angus Jackson's staging of The Browning Version is disappointing at first, missing many of the subtle nuances in Rattigan's drawing-room drama. Here, Taplow, a gauche classics student, belatedly shows his affection for Mr Crocker-Harris, the outgoing classics master. The latter has long been scorned as a dessicated pedant by everyone else, including the adulterous Millie Crocker-Harris and her lover, debonair science teacher Frank Hunter.
The comedy falls a little flat in this production when Liam Morton's Taplow cruelly mimics Crocker-Harris's teaching style. Yet this well-made play suddenly turns heart-rending when Nicholas Farrell's gaunt, muted Crocker-Harris becomes unable to maintain his cold-fish manner and is wracked by weeping. Chancellor ensures Millie's vile bitterness is shot through with desperation, and Umbers, turning on her, suggests a vein of misogyny in Hunter, at the same time as a surge of decency. He insists his future friendship will be with the husband rather than the wife.
We've jumped to the mid-1970s in No Naughty Bits where all old-school decorum has bitten the dust. But no, the forces of prim restraint have morphed into executives at the American TV network ABC, infuriating members of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
This new comedy biodrama by Steve Thompson – albeit with a touch of fantasy – dramatises a footnote in broadcasting history. Having been given free rein by the BBC, the Pythons hear their wacky sketches are being heavily cut before transmission stateside. All the risqué gags are being excised.
So, Michael Palin (Harry Hadden-Paton in flares and a long-haired wig) is persuaded to join the fuming loose canon Terry Gilliam (Sam Alexander) in New York, to fight the giant American broadcaster. The consequent row ends up in court.
Monty Python still, of course, has a fan base, but No Naughty Bits takes ages to prompt any peals of laughter. And then it's the federal judge who's far wittier than anyone else, played with superbly deadpan nonchalance by Matthew Marsh.
One can't help wondering if Thompson is unwittingly damaging the Pythons more than ABC did, as the risqué punchlines recited mostly seem puerile, and execs' arguments more persuasive than Palin's and Gilliam's, although it never feels like a deliberate turnaround on Thompson's part to side with the censors.
Lastly, an innocent girl is sold to the Devil by her hooch-swigging father in The Wild Bride. This is a welcome return by director Emma Rice of Kneehigh to her folkloric, physical-theatre roots. The fairytale realm is grim but also joyously buoyant, with vaudevillian touches, evoking the dirt-poor American South one minute then transporting us, the next, to a Scottish glen and a charmingly absurd, prancing prince.
Designer Bill Mitchell's set is rough and woody, with magical touches. A gnarled tree stands entangled with ladders. A crop of golden pears – glowing light bulbs – float down on pulleys. Played in different stages of her life by three dancers, the heroine has a resilient purity of soul that defeats all attempts to besmirch her. This is in spite of Stuart McLoughlin's morbidly scrawny Devil plunging one of the dancers in a mud bath and having her lily-white hands chopped off.
Rice's production includes some prolix anticlimaxes, but Stu Barker's music, blending blues, jazz and Middle Eastern ululation, is fantastic. Give the guy an award.
'The Browning Version'/'South Downs' (01243-781312) to 8 Oct; 'No Naughty Bits' (020-7722 9301) to 15 Oct; 'The Wild Bride' (0871-221 1722) to Sat then touring
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