Writer: Simon Gray
Director: Richard Eyre
Reviewer: Andy Moseley
Rowan Atkinson makes a triumphant return to the West End in a new production of Simon Gray’s 1981 play, Quartermaine’s Terms. As St John Quartermaine, Atkinson has a rôle that was made for him, and his performance and the production lives up to its promise.
Set in the staff-room of the Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners in the 1960s, the play spans three years in the lives of the school’s teachers and founders. Quartermaine is the longest serving of the teachers. While his colleagues have domestic dramas, involving divorce, neurotic children, and parasitical mothers, Quatermaine has nothing. Played by Edward Fox in the original West End production, he is a bachelor, living in the same rented accommodation he has had since he started teaching. The school is his world. His social life involves babysitting and being a shoulder to cry on for colleagues who then fail to think about him when they have anything better to do.
Unaware of much of what is going on around him, initiating nothing, and not sure what he’s responding to, he has, as one colleague notes “an amazing ability not to let the world impinge on you.” He’s also a bad teacher, unable to remember any of his students, and increasingly forgetting to attend his own classes.
All of which makes him an unlikely protagonist, and it is a testament to both the quality of Gray’s script and Atkinson’s performance that he nevertheless sets the tone and dominates the production almost entirely.
Atkinson gives an understated, sweetly out-of-touch, performance that draws out the humour and sympathy of the character and has the audience rooting for him in spite of his inadequacies. Barring a couple of Mr Bean style laughs, there is nothing in his performance that reminds you of his previous rôles, and yet it still seems quintessentially a rôle that could have been written for him.
The supporting cast also deliver strong performances. Eddie Loomis, the school’s co-founder, is a man similarly cut off from the rest of the world. The only differences between him and Quartermaine, are that he has a long term partner, his co-founder Thomas Cull, and his lack of awareness is borne out of disinterest rather than an inability to comprehend the world outside the school. Malcolm Sinclair, brings a dignified but distant quality to the rôle and makes the character of Thomas come to life even though he is never seen.
Matthew Cottle, also cuts a wonderfully hopeless figure as would-be author Mark Sackling, writing about his wife giving birth, oblivious to her walking out on him as he is doing this.
The production captures the balance between the humour and pathos of much of Gray’s writing. While occasionally threatening to move into farce with incidents involving the accident prone Derek Meadle (Will Kean), and the tribulations of Melanie Garth (Felicity Montagu) and her elderly mother, it never crosses that line. The end result is a production where you feel for all of the characters as they face their own personal tragedies.
Gray’s work has been largely, and unfairly, overlooked in recent years. It’s hoped that this revival will lead to more of his plays being rediscovered and returned to the London stage.