Sunday, September 04, 2011


South Downs
Chichester Festival Theatre

Enterprisingly, Chichester have included two new plays in their Rattigan anniversary season.

Nicholas Wright's “Rattigan's Nijinksy” takes the abandoned screenplay, commissioned by the BBC, about impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his “creation” Nijinsky, and weaves through and around it his imagined back-story. Thus giving us two world premières in one. While David Hare's South Downs, written to complement The Browning Version, shows us the coming of age of a solitary child unhappily immured in a Public School in the early sixties.

Malcolm Sinclair is cornering the market in insecure inverts of genius. Hard on the heels of his buttoned-up Britten in The Habit of Art, here we see him as Rattigan, not quite so repressed, perhaps, but still aghast at being outed and labelled a queer writer. These two men both knew they were dying [they died in fact within a year of each other], both hoped their swan song would say something of the love that dared not speak its name.
Philip Frank's stylish production skilfully interweaves the two stories, helped by a versatile company which sees Jonathan Hyde triumphantly pull off the unlikely double of the flamboyant Diaghilev and the straight-talking BBC producer Cedric Messina, and Susan Tracy on glorious form as the dancer's determined widow, and Rattigan's redoubtable mother Vera. Nijinsky himself was played with passionate intensity by a diminutive Joseph Drake; this too was doubled, in a brilliant device, with the bell-hop at Claridges – a very Bennett character this – who, in a poignantly downbeat ending, shares his passion for cricket with the great writer, and companionably slips between the covers.
An agreeably surreal atmosphere is created by having dancers, party-goers and passengers invade the carpeted hush of Rattigan's hotel suite. A favourite moment – action on board the liner to Buenos Aires – when Mrs R, strolling past on the captain's arm, tartly reminds Messina - “I've been dead and buried for three years – you should know that!”

David Hare's unsettling atmospheric memoir of Lancing in the 60s is both an éducation sentimentale and an éducation spirituelle. And a largely autobiographical piece – Hare's father too was often absent at sea, Hare's Scottish mother a passionate believer in the power of education. John Blakemore, played with a wonderfully controlled emotional and intellectual depth by Alex Lawther, loses his only close friend [an equally impressive Bradley Hall] and his Anglo-Catholic faith. In a richly symbolic narrative, we watch him see the object of his worship from afar [the actress mother of his house prefect] become flesh and blood in a eucharist of Fortnum's fruit cake. His dialogues with staff - “precocity and insolence” - and with his peers, sharing confidences, milk and a clandestine cigarette, were absolutely believable. Jonathan Bailey caught the easy confidence of the “incendiary” revolutionary prefect who can't wait to escape with his air hostess from Hove, and the excellent quartet of younger boys was completed by Jack Elliott and Liam Morton [Taplow in The Browning Version]. This is the world, with its arcane rules and its love of ritual, of Anderson's “If...”, and, less seriously, Bennett's Albion House. Fifty years on it's hard to recapture, and I thought that the boys managed it rather better than the masters, though Andrew Woodall's English teacher, teaching Pope with a mixture of bullying and sarcasm, was interestingly written, and I liked the pyjama-clad confirmation class, where the chaplain who alludes meaningfully to his “thing of darkness” was nicely done by Nicholas Farrell [a movingly desiccated Crocker-Harris in the Rattigan]. Belinda Duffield, who brings the cake and teaches Blakemore what “dissembling” means, was superbly played by Anna Chancellor, who also gave us a memorably poisonous Millie Crocker-Harris. “Inconsequential” overheard on the way out over the parquet to the interval drinks. I can't agree. Yes, the ending was less powerful than the intriguing opening moments, but we were left feeling we had seen a young life changed for ever.

Two pedantic foot-notes. I was worried that the lonely boy spoke of “Mum” instead of “Mummy”, or even “Mater”, before I realised that this could well be a shibboleth for the child from a semi-detached. And in the sixties, we sang “Him serve with fear, his praise forth tell”. The mealy-mouthed amendment says much of changing attitudes to the Deity, to religion, and indeed to Masters and to education.

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