The undoubted appeal of the new production of Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, which continues to Bath before a limited West End run, is the appearance of Rowan Atkinson in the title role, his first straight play on the stage for 25 years.
In a way it’s a shame that this is the headline attraction for the revival of Gray’s 1981 piece, as Richard Eyre’s exquisite direction draws exceptionally strong performances from its excellent cast, with the extra-curricular activities at a Cambridge school teaching English to foreigners in the Sixties played out with humour and pathos.
Yet Atkinson himself plays St John Quartermaine, a lonely and ineffective teacher whose life only truly exists in the confines of the staffroom, barely audibly and in such a restrained way that it is difficult to have much sympathy for a character who might be a lovable old buffer who survives as part of the academic furniture, or just a sad and friendless absent-minded professor who is lucky to have a post at all.
His relative non-existence outside of the school (he is most often seen seated in his staff room armchair) is balanced by the many and varied concerns and dramas of fellow teachers over a couple of years (all also coloured by degrees of loneliness), to much of which the hapless Quartermaine remains oblivious.
The cast succeeds brilliantly in getting across a sense of much being said but little being heard, and it is easy to be touched by the sad ironies in the lives of the other characters whose traumas unfold around the eponymous Quartermaine’s dream world.
Malcolm Sinclair is wonderful as Eddie, who co-runs the school with his unseen partner, a study of ebullience ravaged by physical and emotional degeneration; Conleth Hill marvellous as a blustering Henry; Will Keen perfect as new boy Derek, accident-prone, unliked, yet eager to please; Felicity Montagu superb as apparently well-adjusted Melanie, breaking down to hysterical fervour; Matthew Cottle as the would-be novelist exploring passion on the printed page yet tragically missing the reality of family life around him; and Louise Ford as Anita, trying to disguise the waywardness of a philandering husband.
It will be interesting to see how fans of the inventive and often unpredictable Rowan Atkinson respond to this laid back performance in a downbeat role, yet the production certainly deserves to be seen in all its strength and poignancy.