Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece of understated passions “The Browning Version” is rarely performed for one very good reason: No suitable one-act play exists with which to create a satisfying evening. Until now: Chichester Festival Theater and the Rattigan estate commissioned David Hare to write a curtain-raiser. “South Downs” doesn’t quite match Rattigan’s quiet intensity but its similarly tender portrait of loneliness in the elite English school system is genuinely resonant thanks to Jeremy Herrin’s flawless production. The work and Angus Jackon’s beautifully acted Rattigan revival offer a showcase of old-fashioned eloquence.
Rattigan’s play rests on feelings felt but unwillingly spoken, a theme Hare revists in “South Downs,” which also shares its school setting, in this instance in 1962. Although this is only three years before Time magazine coined the term “the swinging ’60s,” the strictly codifed, fiercely traditional, hierarchical atmosphere of the English public school might as well be that of 50 years earlier.
The focus of “The Browning Version” is on a teacher faced with the possibility of change. Hare, conversely, builds a portrait of an equally isolated pupil, 14-year-old John Blakemore, played with startlingly blunt and bleak authority by 16-year-old debuting Alex Lawther.
Seemingly self-contained by his precocious knowledge, Blakemore is in fact struggling with his sense of self. Echoingly isolated in the sad ache of Bruno Poet’s cold light on Tom Scutt’s spare, open stage, Lawther’s unshowy portrayal of the widening split between his confident public persona and his inner desperation is all the more moving for its restraint.
Hare’s play is stronger on presentation than on a developing plot as it moves calmly through 12 often elliptical scenes of school life. The effect is like watching a stone being cut and recut at a series of contrasting angles to reveal different facets of Englishness.
Although director Herrin ruthlessly observes the tender but unsentimental nature of Hare’s writing, he grounds the floating ideas beneath the nostalgic cloak of the boys singing school hymns in unison, snatches of which are threaded through the play along with Paul Englishby’s coolly reverberant piano music.
The strongest relationship is the most unexpected, in the scene where Duffield introduces Blakemore to his actress mother Belinda, played with equal self-deprecation and witty grandeur by Anna Chancellor. Her generous words to friendless Blakemore warm to one of Hare’s perennial themes — lies and the need for self-defense. Her suggestion that he should dissemble in order to make himself more accepted breaks through a social carapace he has earlier described with the words: “I don’t like me either. But it’s the character I’ve been given, and I can’t do anything about it.”
Belinda’s act of unnecessary kindness exactly mirrors that of the pupil Taplow (Liam Morton) in “The Browning Version,” who unexpectedly gives a leaving gift to his departing teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris (Nicholas Farrell). Taken wholly unawares, the dessicated Andrew crumples both physically and emotionally. Yet it’s Farrell’s struggle in the character’s immediate need to recover that is truly upsetting.
Jackson rightly uses that moment as the play’s thematic and emotional pivot. On either side, some of the emotional wrench and the deftly placed droll comedy is lost. That’s partly because of the physical imprecision imposed by the three-sided stage that robs Rattigan’s brilliantly crafted drama of its focus.
The performances, however, are very fine. Chancellor, as Andrew’s wife, offsets Millie’s desperation and bitter cruelty with a winningly amused manner. Mark Umbers pulls off the difficult job of bringing decency to Millie’s faintly caddish lover Frank, and Andrew Woodall gleams with self-satisfaction as the flagrantly insincere headmaster.
In little over an hour, Rattigan’s superbly plotted drama gracefully navigates the quiet desperation of his characters’ lives with Chekhovian power, complemented by Hare’s more impressionistic piece. This well-crafted evening of repression and self-expression proves there’s a great deal more to schoolday behavior than dreamed of in “The History Boys.”