By Terence Rattigan
Directed by Peter Hall
Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston
Date: Thursday 10th September 2009
How embarrassing. This was a double bill; the first play was Swansong, a piece by Anton Chekov. However I’m not able to rate Swansong as I kept nodding off through it; not a reflection on the actors, just that I was more tired than I realised. I heard a fair bit of laughter, so it must have been pretty good.
The Browning Version is another matter altogether. I’ve only seen this once or twice before and my memory wasn’t clear on all the details so I had to pay close attention to this one. The story concerns an older teacher, Andrew Crocker-Harris, steeped in the classics, who is about to leave the public school he’s taught at for eighteen years due to health problems. He has another job – he’s due to start next term at a ‘crammer’ – but he won’t be earning as much, and today the headmaster tells him he won’t be getting a pension as he hasn’t done the full twenty years. This piece of information drew a few gasps from the audience, and there was more to come.
His wife’s unfaithfulness throughout their marriage is represented here by her latest lover, a younger science teacher, and we learn about Crocker-Harris’s reputation amongst both staff and boys through a chat between a student, Taplow, and this science teacher, Frank Hunter, while both are waiting in Crocker-Harris’s study. Crocker-Harris himself becomes aware of this reputation through the innocent use of his school nickname “the Himmler of the lower fifth” by the youthful chap who’ll be replacing him next term. This, coupled with an almost sadistic barb from his wife over a book which Taplow has given him as a farewell present (more gasps from the audience) appears to put the final nail in his coffin, and his disappearance from the stage clutching his medicine bottle made more of us than just his wife think he was going to end it all.
He didn’t, and with the science teacher’s eyes being opened by the wife’s behaviour another opportunity emerges. The wife’s off to Bradford, but Crocker-Harris has decided to stay at the school until he goes to Dorset to take up his new post. Frank Hunter has taken his address and arranged a date to visit him there. Before sitting down to dinner, Crocker-Harris calls the headmaster to tell him that he will, in fact, make the final speech tomorrow, a position he’d allowed himself to be pushed out off for a more popular, but junior master. As he and his wife start their meal, there’s a lovely sense of the worm turning and the possibility of some happiness in the future.
I do like the way that Rattigan sets these people before us without much in the way of judgement, so we can see the situation from a number of points of view. Crocker-Harris comes across as a dry old stick to begin with, but as we get to know more about him and the people around him, we see more to the man than that. All the performances were fine as was the set. Now all I have to do is make sure I stay awake in future, and all will be well.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me