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 25 years.
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 approaches.
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.