Review: South Downs and The Browning Version

This completely deserving duo of South Downs and The Browning Version marks yet another transfer from Chichester’s Minerva to the West End. With both plays set in British public schools, there is an obvious theme to the evening. Hare’s South Downs, written to be performed in tandem with Rattigan’s The Browning Version, is witty and extremely engaging. South Downs focuses on John Blakemore (Alex Lawther) a 14-year-old student who is wise beyond his years. Hare’s script doesn’t dumb the younger boys’ characters down but allows them to live in that ever-changing and mysterious void between boy and man. This is a great new piece and blends beautifully with Rattigan’s The Browning Version, a British treasure if ever there was one.

With an exceptionally strong cast all round it is hard to pick out performances that excelled even further, but Anna Chancellor (as Belinda Duffield in South Downs and Millie Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version), Jonathan Bailey (Jeremy Duffield in South Downs), Nicholas Farrell (Rev Eric Dewley in South Downs and Andrew Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version) and Mark Umbers (Frank Hunter in The Browning Version) all give strong and electric performances throughout. The charisma dripping off of the stage is truly astonishing and, in my opinion, these pieces showcase some of the best talent we will see in the West End right now. Alex Lawther also does a good job as John Blakemore, and is sure to grow leaps and bounds and mature further as an actor within the next few years.

Tom Scutt’s sets match the pieces perfectly, with South Downs’s relative sparsity contrasted with The Browning Version’s opulence. Wood panelling and lists of head boys, sports captains, etc. further recreate something that is so deeply ingrained as life in British public school that it instantly brings up a feeling of nostalgia.

Jeremy Herrin (South Downs) and Angus Jackson’s (The Browning Version) direction also works cohesively to create pieces that so easily complement each other. The pieces seem natural and yet from a different period, and this only helps the audience to further empathise with the characters and the situations of the play.

With two well-written plays and beautiful performances from a very talented cast, it is easy to understand why Chichester’s transfers are starting to dominate the West End. This is British theatre at its best and I would love to hear of an extension to this show’s run.

South Downs and The Browning Version are playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 21 July. For more information and tickets, see the Harold Pinter Theatre website by ATG.