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The Browning Version

by on 2 October 2021

Perfectly Carved Cameo

The Browning Version

by Terence Rattigan

The Questors, at the Questors Studio, Ealing until 9th October

Review by Emma Byrne

Watching the perceptive and penetrating The Browning Version with our 21st century mind-set, it is almost impossible to believe that Kenneth Tynan once dismissed Terence Rattigan as one of a slew of Non-Controversial Western Playwrights.  This perfectly carved cameo of a one-act play exposes themes of gender, repression, and desperate compromise.

Simon Taylor as Andrew Crocker-Harris carries the emotional weight of the evening in his portrait of a man who has built a façade only to see it become a prison.  We see him pinned between the casual cruelty of his wife Millie (Caroline Ash) and the careless condescension of Dr Frobisher, the Headmaster (Robert Gordan Clark).  Although the play takes place in real time, the slings and arrows of two decades of life are revealed.  The younger, more confident master, Hunter (James Burgess) is Ægisthus to Crocker Harris’ Agamemnon, but Rattigan is bold enough to conjure a different ending, which Burgess and Taylor play with a deeply moving connection. 

Quinn Goodliffe plays the student Taplow with the blend of easy charm and burgeoning awkwardness of a boy on the verge of manhood.  Rattigan’s writing and Goodliffe’s performance give us a plangent contrast between the boy Taplow, alight with sensitivity and spontaneity, and the man he might become in Crocker-Harris’ self-consciousness and self-control.

Rattigan is masterful at showing the devastating consequences of believing the stories we invent about one-another, and about ourselves.  The newlywed couple (a sparking Jordan Fowler as Mrs Gilbert and Oscar Gill as Peter Gilbert) are already referring to each other in stereotypical roles (he refers to her as the domestic “boss” while she focuses on his financial power) in a tragic foreshadowing of the estrangement of the Crocker-Harrises from each other and from themselves.  Rattigan forces us to acknowledge that the neglected wife and henpecked husband is more often tragedy than farce.

The pivotal scene between Crocker-Harris and Gilbert is directed beautifully by Francis Lloyd, elevating a moment that could have played as exposition in less skilled hands.  Oscar Gill’s deeply embodied characterisation of the sympathetic stranger lends a believable sense of unburdening to Taylor’s emotional speeches.  The scene captures the transformative magic of the counselling room.  Rattigan has written a surprisingly prescient, thoroughly humanist play in which acceptance is the terrain where change can finally grow. 

Emma Byrne, October 2021

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster

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