Unfaithful and casally cruel: Anna Chancellor in Terence Rattigan's "The Browning Version"
We've supped deep of Terence Rattigan after an anniversary year: proof that the well-made play has turned out to be a serviceable creature. After Flarepath, The Deep Blue Sea and Cause Célèbre it takes some nerve to stage a homage to Rattigan as David Hare does in South Downs: half of a double bill at the Pinter Theatre, with Rattigan's peerless study of disloyalty and redemption, The Browning Version, as the second half. It's an audacious but mutually enriching two-for-one.
South Downs shows an altogether warmer side to Hare than his chilly deconstructions of politicians and power. It turns on the spiritual and sexual teenage angst of Blakemore, a precocious teenager (Alex Lawther), bumping up against the dusty conventions of his 1960s public school, while worrying about the Bomb, Harold Wilson and the precise nature of the Eucharist.
The boy seeks solace with Anna Chancellor, the mother of the school's alpha male prefect — who is just about the only heterosexual in the entire production. All this could easily cloy, but casting is the key to the poignancy and charm of Jeremy Herrin's production. Heavy-hipped and generous, Chancellor gives the boy some rare lightness of being, in a world of constraint. Nicholas Farrell is the arid chaplain saddled with explaining transubstantiation to adolescent boys, with about as little chance of understanding their lives as of resolving the sacred mysteries.
He and Chancellor return in The Browning Version: he is Andrew Crocker-Harris, "the Himmler of the lower fifth", ending a failed career as a teacher, while his unfaithful, casually cruel wife flaunts her adultery. Ah, happy days.
When one of the schoolboys presents him with a copy of Browning's Aeschylus translation, the gesture unleashes first disaster but ultimately, a form of salvation. The homosexual undertones are controlled, but ever-present. Decide for yourself if the ending is an act of atonement or an assignation. The cleverness of Angus Jackson's direction lies in the doubt.