Swan Song/The Browning Version, Theatre Royal, Bath

A double blow to old masters
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The Independent Culture

Swan Song is a 25-minute vaudeville by Chekhov for an old actor and his prompter in a theatre after the lights go out. The Browning Version is a 75-minute tragedy of a failed schoolmaster transfigured by an act of kindness when a pupil gives him Robert Browning's translation of the Agamemnon on his retirement.

There's no obvious connection between these plays, so Peter Hall invents a couple. First, he gets Peter Bowles to play both Chekhov's thespian and Rattigan's teacher; then he plops an Agamemnon speech into the Chekhov.

The first move is a mistake – watching Peter Bowles play an old actor badly is only marginally less embarrassing than watching Peter Bowles play a decrepit classics master as a subdued suburban gangster in a double-breasted suit – the second, a catastrophe.

Chekhov's short piece, adapted from one of his own stories, made his reputation in the theatre in 1888. It is – or at least it reads as, in Michael Frayn's centenary year translation – a lament for the old style of theatre, and acting, with a poignant shaft of lost love.

British theatre-goers are more familiar with The Bear and The Proposal from this early Chekhov period, but Swan Song has extraordinary elements of surrealism and atmospheric theatricality that Bowles and Hall want to flatten out somehow, as though the actor is a failed provincial Donald Wolfit, not a grand Russian master.

The poor chap's got drunk at his own benefit night and is locked in the empty theatre with only the prompter for company. But instead of rising to the tragi-comic heights, Peter Bowles witters on like a club bore, a turn he develops with added polish in the Rattigan play.

His Crocker-Harris city suit is nothing, though, compared to the eye-offending blue barathea blazer (with brass buttons) and white slacks of James Laurenson as the headmaster bearing bad news (and bad dress sense). The Crock's not only going to lose his pension, he's going to be deprived of his outgoing privilege of topping the bill at the prize-giving.

In the film, Michael Redgrave transforms this insult into a glorious oratorical triumph, whereas Bowles is left merely to state that he will take the top spot at the assembly. It's not the same, mainly because you don't believe that, if he does, it will make much difference.

And the play suffers from serious sexual-chemistry deficiency in Millie Crocker-Harris' adulterous dalliance with the science teacher (Rattigan brilliantly charts this fall-out, which is more than the actors, Candida Gubbins and Charles Edwards, do).

Still, nothing Bowles does is without interest, even if that means wrestling against parts he's not right for. Hall's production does put us back in touch with plays we are better off remembering; it's just that you have to think hard to imagine them being more exciting.

To 1 August (01225 448844; www.theatreroyal.org.uk )

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