Based on David Hare’s knowledge of 1960’s private school politics from the position of a boy attending on a scholarship, South Downs is an excellent play: funny, intelligent and exceptionally well-crafted. Hare is probably the best representative of the British playwriting establishment; perhaps no other living writer knows the stage like he does. Yet, Hare has never really pushed the boundaries of theatre. He is as solid - and in some ways traditional - as they come.
So, South Downs will please almost all kinds of theatre-goer, from the casual to those devoted to the act of sitting down and watching a performance. The dialogue is paced so well that there is no hang-time whatsoever, no sense that things need to be moving on. This feeling is created as much by the actors as the script: an impressive young cast take charge, demonstrating a range of comic and emotional performances. David Kelly’s Blakemore is restless and awkward, maintaining an illusion of discomfort around others with sensitivity and stamina. Rufus McGrath’s Duffield (Blakemore’s prefect and confidant) is smooth and charming without ever becoming cloying or creepy; he always seems to care genuinely for Blakemore, making this a very interesting and quite touching relationship. Innocence is maintained throughout, despite some portentous indications of adolescent throws.
Interestingly, sex is avoided entirely in this play. Instead, the themes are education and revolution - and how the two may interact. Hare has always been interested in the intersections between art and politics. However, he always toes the line when it comes to structure, dialogue and craft. He toes it so beautifully that it’s hard to criticise him. Whilst South Downs carries some political weight, it is almost always lost on an audience lapping up his charming tête-à-têtes. South Downs is too solid a piece of work ever to cause a tingling of the spine; yet this production never seems like the amateur one it really is. This is a professional and remarkably accomplished piece that, whilst never reaching transcendent clarity, is a reliably intelligent hour of theatre.