This year’s remarkable Chichester Festival season has already seen its productions of two modern classics by Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill transfer to the West End, and two more of its musicals - Singin’ in the Rain and the yet to open Sweeney Todd - may yet follow them there. But the centrepiece of the season, which has made the festival truly a festival and not just a series of otherwise unrelated productions, has been its celebration of the Rattigan centenary.
Nicholas Farrell (Reverend Eric Dewley) and Jonathan Bailey (Jeremy Duffield) in South Downs at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Photo: Tristram Kenton
It has included two bold interventions, both of which have represented the only new work across the season - Rattigan’s Nijinsky, in which Nicholas Wright folded an unproduced film script by the playwright into a new play about his later life, and now the pairing of Rattigan’s one-act masterpiece The Browning Version with a newly commissioned one-act play from David Hare, South Downs, which has been written specifically in response to it.
But whereas Wright’s attempt to do the right stuff by Rattigan’s life as well as his work created an uncomfortable hybrid that ended up serving neither, Hare aims even higher, seeking to meet Rattigan’s play set in a school with one of his own, and hoping to create echoes and reverberations between them.
Both Rattigan and Hare were public school educated (one at Harrow, the other at Lancing in the South Downs), so they write with the keen, observant eye of the insider that yields telling details in the ferocious adherence to academic discipline, whether it be translating ancient Greek in the Rattigan play or parsing the poetry of Pope for Hare’s students. Both plays also address a similar theme of confronting one’s own nature and observing the predicament of two outsiders - a loner schoolboy for Hare, an alienated and alienating teacher for Rattigan - as an act of kindness is visited upon each.
But while Rattigan poignantly reveals the rifts in an utterly incompatible marriage in The Browning Version, Hare typically draws on more universal themes of friendship and religion, and takes pedantic digressions into riffs on things like the differences in belief systems between Catholics and Anglicans, which makes you feel as if you’re being lectured just as much as his students are.
Both plays are, however, ideally served here in productions that pulse with measured anxiety and feeling. Jeremy Herrin, who has regularly proved his mettle working with younger actors in plays at the Royal Court, gets exacting and revealingly truthful performances in the Hare play from Alex Lawther as the 14-year-old Blakemore, Bradley Hall as the friend he alienates and Jonathan Bailey as the older boy who comes to his rescue.
Angus Jackson, directing the Rattigan, also gets remarkable work from young actor Liam Morton as the student who comes for extra tutoring from Nicholas Farrell’s brilliant portrayal of the crumpled cuckold that is teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris, with Anna Chancellor as his poisonous wife and Mark Umbers as her lover who finds a conscience of his own in superb support.