Review: South Downs/The Browning Version *****

The face of Tom Scutt’s design is a wooden paneled wall, with lists of School Masters’ names, dates and years; the sort you might walk past down the corridors of an old, stern private school. This wall rises to reveal the set of David Hare’s South Downs, which is rather bare and contemporary. It is therefore, easily transformed into classrooms, studies, changing rooms et al, through the simple use of a few chairs. After the interval, on the second rise of this wall, to introduce Terrence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, a far more elaborate and naturalistic set is revealed. It fits perfectly into the emptier shell that was in place for Hare’s play. As the action only takes place in one room the set does not need to adapt, but this more detailed set also helps to segregate the two playwrights.

Nicholas Farrell gives fantastic and diverse performances in both plays. In South Downs, as the Rev. Eric Dewley, he delivers a clear, calm and grounded performance, relishing the dry and witty text of this excellently written script. Much of the weight in this play however, is placed on the shoulders of the young Alex Lawther as John Blakemore. He has a quirky and intense aura, yet delivers his script with innocence. What is particularly endearing about his character though, and what is made evident as this piece moves along, is that unlike everyone else in the play, or in the world for that matter, he is a totally unaffected person; he is the epitome of genuine. South Downs touches on the issue of Blakemore’s ambiguous sexuality, but what is refreshing is that his questionable orientation is not the true issue here, but rather his genuine ‘abnormality’. With insightful lines like ‘I don’t like me either, but it’s a character I’ve been given and I can’t do anything about it.’ Lawther gives a strong and thought-provoking performance in this brilliant play. Jeremy Herrin has given clean and clear direction, and with a very strong cast, conveyed some profound messages that are delicately sprinkled throughout this detailed play.

he portrays the journey of a man who breaks through some firmly constructed, metaphoric walls, bearing his soul along the way; this is a masterclass in acting

The Browning Version offers some more tremendous performances. Andrew Woodall lives and breathes the role of Dr. Frobisher. He is appropriately lax and fits perfectly into the era; like a pig in muck. Demonstrating his versatility, Nicholas Farrell is sensational. His performance as Andrew Crocker-Harris is nothing short of exquisite. Equally as grounded, but with ingrained rigidness, he portrays the journey of a man who breaks through some firmly constructed, metaphoric walls, bearing his soul along the way; this is a masterclass in acting. Angus Jackson directs his, again strong, cast to give a well-rounded piece of theatre, which is, ultimately, very moving, entertaining, and pertinently educating.

There are many parallels that could be drawn between the two plays; not just that they are both based in educational establishments. Broadly, one could come away from this production holding rediscovered value for what it is to truly know oneself, or wondering how often people are genuinely ‘being’, as opposed to playing a part within a socially political world. There is much to be offered in this double-bill; it is food for thought, balanced beautifully by being very entertaining, and often comedic. This is a delightful evening at the theatre, and in many, many ways, an education.

***** (5 stars)
Runs until July 21st
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