South Downs – September 2011


By: David Hare

Directed by: Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 6th September 2011

We attended a pre-show Q&A with David Hare, who is a delightfully intelligent and entertaining speaker. He was very good about not giving away any details of the play which most of us were seeing this evening – some had already seen it – so his comments tended to be general; even so, it was an interesting event, and I found I agreed with many of his observations.

The play, South Downs, was commissioned by the Rattigan estate to be played in conjunction with The Browning Version, as a more suitable complement to that play than Harlequinade, which was Rattigan’s original companion piece. Hare himself wasn’t complimentary about Harlequinade, and from the fact that they commissioned this alternative piece, he suggested that the estate weren’t too happy about it either.

Although this new play is set in a boarding school in the South Downs in the early 1960s, and he was a student at Lancing College himself at that time, the play isn’t autobiographical. There are some elements of the playwright spread amongst several of the boys – an inevitable aspect of the writer’s profession – but otherwise you will search for him in vain. He was trying to get across some of the flavour of life at that time in that kind of school, a time when big ideas were being discussed and it was believed that ideas could change the world, unlike our own more cynical and fearful times. He made a point at the start which was that the events of the play are closer in time to the First World War than they are to the present day, which is true, but did surprise us. He explained that for him and his generation – there were many nods in the audience – the major event which shaped their world, the Second World War, had already been and gone, but everyone who had lived through it was affected by the experience, and their lives were often a reaction to that time, such as just wanting a bit of peace and quiet.

When asked whether he thought the new play would make a good film, David pointed out that with the stage, a writer has more control and more rights over the finished product, while with film and TV, those rights are signed away. The casting process for this production was very amicable, from the sounds of it, even if they did have to see a lot of boys before they found the right one to play the central part of John Blakemore. They both spotted him immediately, though Jeremy Herrin, the director, didn’t say anything to avoid prejudicing David’s selection.

He was also very complimentary about Jeremy Herrin’s ability to bring out the best in young actors, particularly those with no experience. When asked what he’d like the audience to focus on in tonight’s performance, David emphasised the youth of the actors playing the boys, and for us to notice how well they played their parts. We were more than happy to do that, and they were certainly impressive. The masters were played well too, but they remained as authoritarian figures whose inner lives were largely closed to us, as they would have been to the boys.

The set had two large wooden arches towards the back of the stage, one in front of the other, very evocative of that kind of institution. The wooden flooring was scruffy, with gaps here and there as well as rough edges. Chairs were brought on and off as needed, and there was one scene during afternoon tea when a sofa and table were added to the mix. Otherwise the scene was basically set by the lighting, which was very effective.

The story concerns one young lad, John Blakemore, as he adjusts to life at a boarding school. He’s unusual; he thinks a lot, and hasn’t yet learned how to fit in with society’s unwritten and often unspoken rules. This gets him into trouble as well as making him unpopular with the other boys. Through a meeting with a prefect’s mother, who happens to be an actress, he seems to start the learning process, and by the time the prefect leaves the school, there are signs that John is beginning to find his own way to fit in.  It’s not a conclusive piece – not with David Hare writing it – but it is an interesting insight into that kind of school life at that time, and it’s certainly a good foil for The Browning Version.

Alex Lawther was excellent as John Blakemore. He conveyed the character’s intensity and innocence, and allowed him to be slightly unlikeable as well. I loved the scene where he explained the meaning of a verse by Alexander Pope by reference to all sorts of other things, completely flooring the teacher who had to fall back on pomposity to ‘win’ the day. The other boys were excellent too – one, Liam Morton, was also in The Browning Version – and the teachers were played to perfection by Nicholas Farrell and Andrew Woodall. Anna Chancellor played the actress, while Stella Gonet did the voiceover for a letter John received from his mother – clearly not a sympathetic soul in terms of her son’s needs.

There was a great deal of humour throughout, and we both felt the audience wasn’t quite as responsive as it could have been, although it wasn’t totally silent either. David Hare had expressed an interest in seeing this play separately from The Browning Version, so that its merits could be identified more readily; with this pairing, it’s hard to tell how much the audience was simply wanting the Rattigan and couldn’t care less about the first play, and how much they were open to both. I certainly felt that having the actors from both plays take their bows together at the end blurred the edges for me. I would have liked an opportunity to show how much I enjoyed this play on its own.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

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