South Downs/The Browning Version at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Anna Chancellor starring in The Browning Version at Chichester Festival Theatre
Anna Chancellor starring in The Browning Version at Chichester Festival Theatre

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David Hare has written a wonderful play to compliment Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, as both plays tackle the isolation of a public school education.

The fast-paced scene changes and simplistic set are a fitting contrast to Rattigan’s play, set in the Crocker-Harris’ living room one summer afternoon.

And Alex Lawther’s professional debut performance steals the show in Hare’s South Downs.

For a boy making his debut, to be able to portray the character of a lonely 1960s schoolboy in this way, is a real accomplishment.

His role as John Blakemore, a boy who ‘knows everything about what no-one wants to know, and knows nothing about what everybody knows’ is touching as he faces the difficulties of boarding school.

Not forgetting his classmates, whose gentle teasing of their masters and poking fun (‘We all have to believe in something, all because 500 years ago King Henry VIII decided he wanted a divorce’) provides some light-hearted comedy value.

Rattigan’s The Browning Version is a strong revival piece.

The real star in this was Nicholas Farrell. His portrayal of aging schoolmaster Andrew Crocker-Harris is difficult to fault. His character’s involvement in South Downs is minimal, which makes it easy to watch as he fills most of the time in the second half.

Farrell’s sadness after being told by Gilbert (his successor) that the headmaster referred to him as ‘Himmler of the lower fifth’ is touching. He gradually lets his true feelings show, and it’s clear he knows more than everyone gives him credit for.

Anna Chancellor and Angus Jackson, who play Andrew’s vindictive wife and her lover, compliment Farrell’s performance. Although she has presence on the stage, your eyes are easily drawn to him.

Chichester Festival Theatre has done itself proud with this final production to celebrate the 100th year of Terence Rattigan’s birth.

Until October 8.