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

What a terrific idea. To mark Terence Rattigan’s centenary last year, Chichester Festival Theatre elected to stage his heart-breaking one-act play, The Browning Version, in company with a new work, South Downs by David Hare. The resulting double bill now arrives in the West End: a beautifully modulated and quietly devastating evening of school drama.

Both plays are set in public schools, inspired by their authors’ own experiences (Rattigan at Harrow; Hare at Lancing). But they complement each other neatly. Hare’s, set in 1962, is shown from the boys’ point of view, and is a fluid piece, working by accumulation of scenes. Rattigan’s, set in the late 1940s, depicts the masters’ experience and never moves from the one room. Yet both have in common a crisp sense of humour, a keen sympathy and a deep understanding of the cruelty and pain that the system can inflict. In both the school environment becomes a microcosm for the way society operates and in both the word that keeps tumbling out with every shake of the satchel is “rules”.

Hare’s play, surely one of his most tender, touching and funny, focuses on Blakemore, a 14-year-old misfit. Blakemore is clever, a scholarship boy who doesn’t fit with his much wealthier peers. But his discomfort is greater than that: this is a boy who thinks deeply, who writes a letter to the papers about the nuclear bomb, who understands Pope’s poetry, but not the unspoken rules of popularity and power games. “I was like you but then I learned the rules,” advises his prefect (Jonathan Bailey), an older boy blessed with an exotic actress mother (perfectly pitched Anna Chancellor) and the easy charm that Blakemore knows he will never acquire.

Newcomer Alex Lawther is excellent as Blakemore: gawkiness, composure, uncertainty and pain jostle one another in his performance. And he is surrounded by a tremendous cast in Jeremy Herrin’s sensitive production.

Cut to Rattigan and it’s the master who hasn’t quite got what it takes to play the game in Angus Jackson’s subtly staged revival of The Browning Version. Crocker-Harris, a brilliant classics scholar, has never cracked the art of popularity and now faces early retirement with little to show for it. Nicholas Farrell is eloquent in restraint as this desiccated, meticulous man, cheated on by his miserable wife, humiliated by his headmaster and brought to an unexpected flood of emotion by a small, kindly act from a pupil. Between them, both plays quietly demonstrate the real lessons in how to live.

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