Rowan Atkinson returns to the London stage as Simon Gray’s emotionally inert and inefficient teacher St John Quartermaine, a role first played thirty years ago by Edward Fox in a silky and poetic production by Harold Pinter.
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.
Quartermaine is one of six teachers in the staff room of the Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners in Cambridge. He’s a fixture, permanently attached to an old leather armchair, useful as a baby-sitter for his colleagues and invariably in receipt of vague invitations to drinks or dinner, but an oddball outsider; the action around him might as well be taking place on Mars, said Pinter.
In that “action” over a period of two years in the early 1960s, we hear of death and bereavement, adulterous affairs, literary ambitions, an incident involving Japanese students in a French restaurant and how the new teacher from Hull, Derek Meadle (Will Keen), a sort of Chekhovian walking catastrophe, finds love in a library.
Atkinson’s Quartermaine is very much an immobile relation of his world-famous Mr Bean, adopting a rubbery mask of indifference to everything that’s said, and his strange little effusions of enthusiasm don’t take you anywhere else, either; it’s as though the exterior man denies any interior life whatsoever…until right at the end, and a crushing curtain line.
It’s a performance that makes it very hard to make you care about the character. No-one else does, much, either, certainly not Conleth Hill’s ebullient, quiff-flicking Henry Windscape, bogged down in family matters and horror stories of a holiday in Norfolk, nor the creepy, sadly self-important head teacher of Malcolm Sinclair, whose pep talks and cheer-leading give way to signs of physical deterioration and decay by the end.
The most “natural” performances are those of Louise Ford as a teacher whose husband is away “co-editing” a new magazine with a female colleague while rejecting the novel extracts of his old college chum (Matthew Cottle); and of Felicity Montagu as a do-gooding stalwart with a big pent-up thing about Windscape.
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.