A packed house sits expectantly for the
curtain to rise on the new production of Simon Gray’s 1981 play
about life in the Cambridge-based Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners during the 1960s. The reason for the expectant hush is that the
piece stars Rowan Atkinson, appearing in his first stage play for
The curtain rises and there, slightly
stage right in the staffroom setting, he sits in a leather armchair.
A second character arrives and the dialogue begins – at least I
think it begins as, for some reason, their voices seem particularly
quiet. From my seat in the dress circle I strain to make out what
they are saying and can’t help wondering how on earth the people in
the upper circle and gallery are getting on.
More characters arrive and, thankfully,
some of the actors are sufficiently adept at voice projection that
they can, at least, be heard but, of course, this only goes to
emphasise how quiet the others are.
By the end of scene one we have learned
that Melanie Felicity Montagu is caring for her mother who is
recovering from a stroke; Anita Louise Ford seems blissfully
unaware that her husband Nigel is cheating on her; dishevelled Mark
Matthew Cottle has spent the weekend wallowing in self-pity after
his wife left him, taking their child with her and Henry Conleith
Hill is having trouble dealing with his daughter as her exam time
The other characters we meet are Derek
Will Keen, an incredibly accident-prone man who is just starting as
a part-time teacher at the school and then – finally – one of the
two principals. This is Eddie Loomis Malcolm Sinclair who, with his
partner Thomas Cull (one of the many unseen roles in the piece),
presides over this small but successful establishment. Sadly, the
hustle and bustle of the first half hour is not replicated later in
the piece, and it settles itself at a tremendously slow pace – for
a further two hours.
Contrasting completely with the hectic
private lives of his colleagues, St John Quartermaine Rowan
Atkinson is a charming but solitary figure. His enthusiastic
exclamations of “Terrific!” and “Absolutely!” when the
principal is giving his motivational speeches to the staff are a sad
testament to the fact that there is nothing really in this man’s
life other than his work (at which he is quite poor) and his school,
which he loves like an old friend.
He listens sympathetically as marriages
crumble, offers kind words and comfort as his colleagues deal with
their problems, offers to babysit to allow his friends a break from
family life and, mainly in Act Two, offers up a few moments of comic
genius – which Atkinson achieves in spite of, rather than because
of, the material with which he is working.
The piece would benefit greatly from
some rather drastic cuts and alterations to reduce the length and
speed up what little action there is. This may also help to boost the
audience reaction at the end of the performance, which, on the
Brighton opening night, was polite rather than enthusiastic.