One Man’s Two Guvnors may be another man’s poison but we urge you to take the risk and nip down to The Harold Comedy Theatre and take in the really rather pleasing and old-fashioned (in a good way) double-bill you will find there.
With all its transfers into town the Chichester Festival Theatre must find it more difficult than a Boris Bike to find somewhere to park in the West End but we should all be grateful that this already acclaimed production has metaphorically managed to chain its crossbar to the railings in Panton Street.
Apparently David Hare was approached by Terrence Rattigan‘s estate to write a new curtain-raiser for The Browning Version to substitute for Rattigan’s own Harlequinade (which incidentally Phil once actually saw and found lacking).
So it is to his credit that – given the brief of “something better than Harlequinade” Sir David Hare-of-Hentitlement came up with South Downs, a neatly complementary piece (director Jeremy Herrin) that echoes the themes of isolation and apparent acts of kindness in a public school. The main difference is that whereas Rattigan’s play is a story of the masters, Hare’s takes the students’ point of view.
And how engaging and funny it proves. We’re not sure why that surprised us, but it did. Anyway, it centres around a somewhat precocious, inquisitive and bright pupil John (a remarkable stage debut from Alex Lawther) who is in trouble for a letter of protest he’s written to the Daily Express. He also unhappily frets about his lack of charm and is abandoned by his only school chum (Bradley Hall) before unexpectedly finding a friendly spirit in the form of actress Belinda Duffield (Anna Chancellor) the mother of one of his colleagues.
When Belinda’s not serving fruit cake (that’s not a euphemism) to John (who doesn’t really care for cake “on any level”) she is appearing at the Duke of York’s in Uncle Says No, a title which immediately appealed to the Whingers and we can’t wait for David Hare to do a Michael Frayn and write it. We’d be there like a shot, on any level.
The Browning Version (director Angus Jackson) turned out to be even better once the Whingers realised that it wasn’t the other Rattigan and stopped waiting for a Postal Order to make an appearance (why don’t playwrights write plays about Postal Orders any more?). Steeped heavily in the same air of disenchantment that pervades the first play, a repressed classics master Andrew Crocker-Harris (Nicholas Farrell) is forced to leave his school due to ill-health but has further unbearable humiliations heaped on him one after the other. It would be unfair to reveal more as the plot’s twists are quite shocking in their way.
Chancellor, Bradley Hall (not the name of an imposing public school but another rather gifted young actor) and Mark Umbers deserve special mentions in despatches, though there isn’t a weak link in the whole cast. Without clutching for superlatives, let us just say that if Farrell’s performance isn’t recognised at next year’s Olivier Awards then there is something very wrong with the Oliviers’ judging process. Which of course there is according to David Benedict’s recent article in Variety.