‘I think someone in their 50s being childlike becomes a little sad’ said Rowan Atkinson, explaining why he has chosen to perform in a play for the first time in 25 years, taking the title role in Quartermaine’s Terms, Simon Gray’s 1981 tragi-comedy which hits the West End next week.
Quartermaine is an affable sort. Somewhat vague and definitely an outsider, he is nevertheless a far cry from Mr Bean, the gauche, childlike character for whom Atkinson is most commonly known.
The action is set in the staff room of a 1970s English language school in Cambridge, and the Terms are the school terms which roll by, every one revealing a little more about the loneliness of its inhabitant teachers.
Take the headmaster, Eddie Loomis, brilliantly played by Malcolm Sinclair who declares that his staff are his ‘family’ whilst they tip-toe around trying to avoid and deceive him. There’s also a marvellous performance by Conleth Hill, a popular academic and politician who is paradoxically isolated in a nuclear family. He in turn is hotly pursued by his ex-fiancee Melanie Garth, whose roller-coaster ride through middle age is hilariously portrayed by Felicity Montague in a challenging role that is worthy of her.
In a triumph of comedy over tragedy, these desperate characters are greeted by roars of approval from the audience. Director Richard Eyre elicits good performances from the whole cast, including the younger teachers Anita, young mother and cuckold, (Louise Ford), Derek, newly recruited Northerner (Will Keen), and Mark, the unpublished novelist (Matthew Cottle).
Rowan Atkinson plays St John Quatermaine, the loneliest of them all. At the beginning he presents a brave face, and Atkinson was outstanding in many scenes, but as the terms roll by Quartermaine gradually fades into the isolation of his armchair until he becomes merely a foil for the tempestuous episodes of the other characters lives.
This is a shame, because as the lines got fewer and his sentences began to fail mid-stream, one could not help but notice that Beanisms were creeping into his performance, most notably burbling, dithering and twitching.
It’s an English sort of Chekov – nothing much actually happens. There are minor events – births, marriages, deaths but these are just incidents in an exposee of loneliness. Simon Gray reveals how isolation can exist and even flourish in an outwardly sociable and supposedly caring environment. Yet each character possesses a certain warmth. They may be heading for existential oblivion, but no one means any harm.
The action needs to be a little tighter, notably in the second half, but the quality of the acting and the dramatic tension were enough to compensate for the fact that the final term seemed one too many.
The ending is perhaps inevitable, but in an ironic twist, it’s the most loving and caring character who performs the final act of cruelty. Not to be missed.
Overall verdict: 8/10
Bath – Theatre Royal until 19th January
London – Wyndham’s Theatre from 23rd January to 13th April
0844 482 5138