The Browning Version/Fumed Oak
THE summer offering at Seaford Little Theatre last week was a judicious double bill of one act plays by two of Britain’s most celebrated playwrights of the 20th century. The interesting feature was that while one of the pieces – Terence Rattigan’s ‘Browning Version’ , directed by Margaret Kennedy, is a widely-known and much-loved classic, Noel Coward’s ‘Fumed Oak’, directed by Mary Young, is an almost undiscovered work – as the Master termed it, ‘a nasty little comedy’.
The evening belonged to Tony Bannister. This experienced and accomplished performer showed his versatility in his portrayal of the repressed, disillusioned academic Crocker-Harris in the Rattigan and then the equally repressed but determined hen-pecked husband who makes his bid for freedom in the Coward comedy. Both plays – and indeed both roles – are in a sense about loss, of promises unfulfilled, of dreams hardly dreamed, let alone grasped. As the Classics master, Bannister was buttoned-up and precise, in his delivery and gait, and his breakdown after the present of the ‘Browning version’ from his pupil Taplow was moving and heartfelt. Owen Daughter, whom I saw last year in a fine performance at Lewes in the Youth Theatre production of ‘Two’, was just right as the diffident yet cheeky schoolboy, who fears and loves in equal measure the man who had moved from a figure of fun to one of derision. Crocker-Harris is due to leave the school after many years’ service, yet is denied a pension by the governors. This devastating news is conveyed to him by the dry and rather weak Headmaster, Frobisher, played with a nice sense of formality by John Hamilton.
Crocker-Harris accepts the news as being the way things are but for his shrew of a wife, Millie, played with an elegant bitchiness by Sylvia Aston, it is the last straw. She’s been carrying on with Crocker-Harris’ colleague Frank Hunter and, so it seems, has done the rounds of the Common Room. The affair means nothing to him and little to her, except as an antidote to the boredom and aridity of her marriage. As the lover, Damian Sutton brought an earnest and almost principled demeanour to the role. Chris Church had few opportunities to impress as Crocker-Harris’ successor and Samantha Chapman as his wife had even fewer.
From the modulated vowels of the Classic scholar to the flattened glottal stops of south London, Bannister gave Henry Gow full rein as he launched into his tirade against his wife [played with a dogged nastiness by Cathryn Parker], his daughter, played by Roxanne Lloyd in a snivelling epitome of the whining teenager, curled lip and all, and his mother-in-law, to which Josie Hobbs brought a malevolent touchiness. After a quiet breakfast, Henry stops off for a couple of whiskies on the way home from work and his wife’s nagging cracks the dam and years of pent-up resentment pour out as Bannister lays about him and sweeps out of the house to a new life. With his torrent of emotion and bitterness, the sense of the wasted years was, as for Crocker-Harris in a very different milieu, palpable.
All in all, two interesting plays, two fine central performances and a reminder that the well-written one-act play still has much to offer.