THEATRE / Summer school: Paul Taylor on The Browning Version at the Greenwich Theatre

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The Independent Culture
They don't seem to be doing anything with it,' I remarked as I was about to leave for Philip Franks's production of The Browning Version at Greenwich. 'Well, what do you expect them to do with it?' replied my wife scornfully. 'Set it on Mars?' I'd simply meant that the theatre was presenting Rattigan's one-act play on its own and not as part of the usual double-bill with Harlequinade. My wife took it that I was harbouring some idiotically misplaced desire for a swingeing reinterpretation. Well, I say idiotically, but then who, a couple of years back, could have predicted that An Inspector Calls would meet with acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic as a new- look Expressionist classic?

In the event, we were both slightly wrong. After the 70-minute play, there's cabaret offered each evening in the theatre's restaurant, though you may feel that this would be an odd supplement to an experience as quietly harrowing (pun very much intended) as watching this public school-based drama of emotional atrophy and profound disillusionment.

There is also an instance of radical directorial intervention, but in my view it gives rise to the one seriously debatable moment in an otherwise moving and well-considered production. Stephen Brimson Lewis's design surrounds the Crocker-Harrises' chintzy sitting-room with a large translucent drawing of the school building through which you can make out the upper level of their abode. During Crocker-Harris's climactic, tearful breakdown, when he's briefly overcome by the unexpected kindliness of a pupil's parting gift, a vision of his wife Millie appears at the top of the stairs - not Millie as she now is, hardened and soured by disappointment, but the idealised Millie of memory, swathed in a white veil.

This interpolation sentimentalises and limits the significance of that moment, turning the complex Crocker-Harris into a Mr Chips manque. Unlike that hero, or the simplified C S Lewis of Shadowlands, Crocker-Harris does not conform to the weepy pattern of the pedantic pedagogue briefly brought to life by the devotion of a woman who then dies on him. He wed Millie in ignorance of the kind of sexual love she needed and he realises that, however much she is out to kill him, he did her wrong in ever marrying her. To suggest, as the vision does here, that Crocker-Harris is nostalgic for his original illusions, is to underestimate the bleak clear-sightedness with which he has long recognised his tragic error.

Elsewhere, this finely cast production strikes very few false notes. Diana Hardcastle splendidly captures the mixture of bitchy defiance, shame, and naked sexual need with which Millie tries to maintain her love affair on the side with Hunter (James Larkin). And she also fleetingly shows you that this jumped-up, vampishly destructive woman is a victim in her own right. When her husband says of Taplow's gift, that 'I would rather have had this present, I think, than almost anything I can think of,' Hardcastle's face flinches eloquently at the implied slight before she clicks into a silvery peal of spurious laughter and proceeds to poison her husband's joy by placing a deftly cynical interpretation on the boy's act of kindness.

Clive Merrison's breakdown is a shade too stormy and demonstrative for my taste, but his bony, shrivelled Crocker- Harris, replete with a bald professorial dome and death's head face, is otherwise a searing portrait of conscious sterility and desiccation. After this, you could be forgiven for wanting to skip the cabaret.

To 23 July. Booking: 081-858 7755

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