A LETTER FROM LONDON: Mary Shelley Comes Alive, and So Does The Browning Version (Twice)

By Ruth Leon
24 Jun 2012

Anna Chancellor in South Downs.
Photo by Helen Maybanks
Several good new plays have sprouted around town. Alongside Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version, a classic of mid-20th century English restraint and angst set in a boys' public (for which read "private") school, is a new play set in a similar environment, this time by David Hare. One of our most accomplished playwrights, Hare has always been somewhat eclipsed by the verbal brilliance of Stoppard in the United States but here at home he is much prized, and a new play from him is an event.

In South Downs, he doesn't let us down. This is a fine piece of work, set in a similar school some 30 years later and deliberately designed as a companion to The Browning Version, a cross-cast group of actors play out the inevitable tensions when adolescent boys are juxtaposed with adults who mean them both good and ill. In The Browning Version, a brilliant but unpopular teacher whose wife is having an all-too-public affair with a colleague rediscovers himself and his values through a gift from a student, an unexpected kindness that is life-changing. An act of kindness is also the machine that informs South Downs. This time the kindness flows from an adult to an unpopular schoolboy, an unusual child who also needs to believe in himself and to learn to like his differentness. Both plays, which collectively run no longer than an average single play, together form a thoroughly satisfying evening in the theatre. South Downs/The Browning Version plays the Harold Pinter Theatre.

The subtext of Children's Children, a new play by Matthew Dunster at the Almeida, is not very sub- at all. In fact, the environmental message it contains could, and perhaps should, be emblazoned on the Almeida's nonexistent front curtain or the front page of the daily newspapers. Whether it can be clearly understood as the subtext of a drama is the job of the attentive audience for Children's Children. The plot concerns old friends who have grown apart — one has become successful, one has not — and what happens to them over several years. There is very fine acting, as you would expect from the Almeida, and many points to ponder in Dunster's impassioned plea for action.

Kristin Atherton in Mary Shelley.

I'm praying that Helen Edmundson's Mary Shelley makes it across the Atlantic intact from the Tricycle Theatre so that American audiences can enjoy the meticulous staging, beautiful performances and delicate writing encapsulated in what, on the surface, seems a straightforward biographical play about the woman who, at the age of 18, wrote "Frankenstein," one of the seminal novels of the 19th century. Born of a freethinking father, the philosopher William Godwin, and an early feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary's relationships with her sisters, her father, her stepmother and above all the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley are the meat of this terrific play. Edmundson makes them all more than believable; she makes them real and human, and I suspect that if I ever hear anything about any of them that contradicts her, I shall not believe it.

Staged very simply, the only set piece being a large table that does for just about every piece of furniture, conveyance and prop, this accomplished and inspiring company, Shared Experience, has over a number of years perfected the combination of text with movement. In the case of Mary Shelley, this ideally suits the episodic nature of the action. It is rare to enjoy an evening in the theatre this much while still learning buckets about the historical people portrayed in it. (It closes July 7.)

Check out Playbill.com's London listings.

 (Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)


Check out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting.