Richard Eyre's revival of Simon Gray's staff room-set Quartermaine’s Terms, starring Rowan Atkinson in his first 'straight' acting West End role for 25 years, opened to press last night (29 January 2013) at Wyndham's Theatre.
The play takes place over a period of two years in the 1960s in the staffroom at a Cambridge school for teaching English to foreigners. It deals with the interrelationship between seven teachers at the school in particular that between St John Quartermaine (Atkinson) and the others.
Richard Eyre’s revival is a little rougher round the edges, the comedy broader and less plangent, the mood mostly Chekhovian with a bleak chill of Strindberg which is appropriate as Quartermaine doesn’t know which of those playwrights he’s booked to see at the theatre... It’s a performance that makes it very hard to make you care about the character... You learn an awful lot about everyone (except Quartermaine, of course) without very much happening, always a sign of good writing, but I am left thinking a little less of the play than I once did. And while Tim Hatley has designed a splendidly dull, naff and utilitarian staff-room, I couldn’t make out if the landscape beyond was summery or snowy, Chekhov or Strindberg. Maybe that’s the point.
...The chief pleasure of Richard Eyre’s revival is the quality of the performances. Atkinson affords us a keen sense of Quartermaine’s benign detachment, the ache of a life scarcely lived. Will Keen’s Derek is a perfectly judged mix of pent-up rage and fidgety mannerisms. Matthew Cottle’s nicely observed Mark is a drab soul looking in vain for what he calls a “mystical experience”. Best of all is Conleth Hill, who as gentle yet exasperated Henry Windscape proves adept at finding the pith in Gray’s dialogue. This isn’t a biting satire on the miseries and politics of education. Aside from a few splashy incidents, its comedy is modest. Instead it ventures into Chekhov territory, savouring the complexities of the characters’ tangled pasts. Death is never far away, and Gray writes poignantly about secrets, lies and loneliness, trading on the idea that pain is funny.
This production represents the West End at its very best: a great play, beautifully directed and acted by an outstanding cast - but it is also an evening tinged with sadness... As the play progresses, Quartermaine’s grip on life becomes ever more tentative, and Atkinson succeeds in making this almost blank character not only dramatically interesting but also deeply moving – almost unbearably so in the play’s desperately bleak final moments. Around Atkinson’s stillness the other actors bustle to often wonderful effect, with Richard Eyre’s production marvellously capturing the play’s potent mixture of rich, ripe humour and sudden glimpses of deep hurt and desperation. Malcolm Sinclair brings a delicious comic grandeur to the school’s gay co-principal, while Will Keen is hilarious as a grating-voiced, accident-prone northerner who arrives on his first day with a great rip in his trouser bottom, with many further indignities to follow...
...Gray’s script is brilliant at pinpointing the everyday courtesies that mask real, meaningful communication. And to begin with, Richard Eyre’s production, blessed with an almost absurdly classy cast of character actors, runs like a well-drilled comic masterclass. Malcolm Sinclair is unbearable as the windbag head, Will Keen is a fine Northern neurotic and Conleth Hill skips through his part with some wonderfully deft clowning. Atkinson has the least lines of them all – and half of them consist solely of the word “terrific” – but he imbues them with a heart-tugging blend of cheeriness and loneliness... (The second half was) as Quartermaine might say of one of his student’s compositions, the component parts are all there, but lacks flair.
...In its study of loss and loneliness, the play clearly owes a debt to Chekhov... he big difference is that Chekhov's characters have an unsatisfied rage for life whereas Gray's suffer a little too passively. But Gray's great strength lies in his sense of irony. The biggest joke of all is that these motley misfits are not just teaching language but imparting English values to eager foreigners; yet they themselves embody, to a fault, the English failure to connect emotionally... Richard Eyre's immaculate production never allows Atkinson to overbalance the play. Malcolm Sinclair is excellent as the co-principal diffusing a bland bonhomie that also seems detached from reality. Conleth Hill, as the hearty senior lecturer, represents a beaming contentment with life that turns out to be fatally misplaced.
...Rowan Atkinson’s St John Quartermaine is a lonely, passive bachelor teacher who sometimes spends whole classes (“even dictation”) in silence. It is brave of Atkinson, our Mr Bean, to accept for his first straight stage role in 25 years another socially dissociated, often silent, worryingly smiling oddball. To his credit he does achieve a separate reality, even pathos (once patting his shabby chair as if it were his only friend)... Long riffs, conversations where neither side is listening, are often funny. But while admiring the writing and cast, I kept waiting for the author to blow this awful world apart with some exhilarating flash of rage or love. But even the deaths of three offstage characters and some promising emotional explosions are rapidly dampened, stifled. And you can lose patience with a portrait of repression, however truthful.