September 19, 2011 6:09 pm

South Downs/The Browning Version, Minerva Studio, Chichester, West Sussex

Teenager Alex Lawther makes a tremendous professional début as Blakemore

The second of Chichester’s two Terrence Rattigan centenary pairings, like the first, couples one of his own plays with a new work. It is much more successful, partly because these two shorter plays can be presented as a double bill in the same evening rather than each demanding a main show.

The Browning Version was a period piece even when Rattigan wrote it, set in what was then the present day of 1948, but drawing on Rattigan’s own experiences as a pupil at Harrow School 20 years earlier. The spiritual and emotional atrophy of schoolmaster Andrew Crocker-Harris seem to render him a man out of time. Nicholas Farrell’s performance here is buttoned up right to the chin, except for the single moment when an unexpected kindness from one of his pupils on the eve of his retirement reduces “the Crock” to tears.

It is preceded by David Hare’s South Downs, which draws similarly on Hare’s own time at Lancing College in the early 1960s when it is set. Here the teacher/student relationship is reversed: Farrell’s housemaster is out of his depth when confronted with the articulate uncertainty of an outsider among the student body. Crocker-Harris has been ground down by half a lifetime of disillusionment, not least in his marriage to a wife who considers love a matter of biology and finance while Young Blakemore in South Downs has no idea yet of his place in the world. But rather than naïveté, he is marked out by a fearsome and questing intelligence, and also by being a lower-middle-class scholarship boy among haut-bourgeois classmates.

Teenager Alex Lawther makes a tremendous professional début as Blakemore, showing remarkable control and nuance. Remember the name. His débutant counterpart in The Browning Version, Liam Morton, would impress in any other company but cannot match Lawther. Anna Chancellor gets to have her cake and eat it as, firstly, the solicitous actress mother of Blakemore’s house prefect, then the smiling villainess (or at least adulteress) that is Mrs Crocker-Harris.

Unusually for a double bill, each play has its own director. Jeremy Herrin with South Downs hits the perfect final note of potential hope to lead us into Angus Jackson’s The Browning Version. As Crocker-Harris observes, “an anticlimax can be surprisingly effective.”

4 stars

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