The is a revival of the 1981 play by Simon Gray who, as well as being a playwright, was also a lecturer at Queen Mary College, University of London. Coincidentally, that was my old college, though I never met Mr Gray while I was there – well, not as far as I remember, though we may well have rubbed shoulders anonymously in the union bar from time-to-time.
Nostalgia aside, this production of Mr Gray's play has the added pulling-power of Rowan Atkinson in the lead as St John Quartermaine. Mr Atkinson is renowned almost in every nook and cranny of the globe, thanks to his portrayals of Black Adder in the BBC TV series, and as Mr Bean in film and on television and even in the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony. But this role is a rather different one for this very famous actor. First, he has relatively little to do in terms of utilising his considerable acting abilities. And, second, he has a relatively small share of the comedy which permeates this dramatic enterprise.
With Mr Atkinson in the lead you might be tempted to assume that this is a comedy, pure and simple. But that really is not the case. It certainly has comic moments, more in the second half than the first, but it does not come anywhere close to having people rolling in the aisles, or having convulsive fits of hysterical laughter. In fact, the play seems rather ordinary and, if this doesn't sound too pointed, a little bland. But there is far more to it than might be immediately apparent.
St John Quartermain has a post as a teacher in a language school in Cambridge. The school teaches English to students who come from almost every point of the compass. Though the school claims to have impeccable credentials and, thus, great linguistic success, it is actually a pretty third-rate institution. It is run by joint principals Eddie and Thomas who seem to share much more than just the job. We never see Thomas who seems to be the business force in the academy, but we do meet Eddie who stirs the teaching troops to do battle in the classroom each day.
The entire play is set in the school's staff room in the early 1960s. Here we meet an odd assortment of teachers who all seem to have considerable problems. For example, Melanie is nursing her mother who has just had a stroke. Derek is a new arrival and is having some difficulty fitting-in and securing a full-time position. He is also extremely accident prone. Henry has a daughter who has taken her public exams early and, when she fails to get good grades, falls into a malaise. Anita has a philandering husband, and Mark's wife leaves him because she cannot cope with being the wife of a budding novelist. And St John Quartermaine is a lonely bachelor in his 50s who is desperate for company and almost totally ineffectual in the classroom, even if he is a decent, nice chap.
Mr Atkinson's performance may not require the full gamut of his skills, and I do not really think that he is particularly challenged in this role. But that doesn't matter, because Mr Atkinson's performance is nevertheless effortlessly professional and charismatic, as well as poignant and moving. The hallmarks of his considerable talent are on display – the delicate hand movements which speak volumes and the facial expressions which convey mountains of information. He is also required to stare vacuously out into the auditorium for long periods of time, as if his brain has sauntered off to some other realm of existence, or even to another planet. But that is all part of the character which is St John Quartermaine. Excellent support abounds here from a very fine cast. Particularly impressive is Malcolm Sinclair as Eddie Loomis, the school co-principal who tries, mostly in vain, to motivate his staff. And Conleth Hill also impresses as the genial Henry who seems everyone's friend until he is handed supreme power, and is quick to wield it to devastating effect.
Simon Gray's play is deceptive and, I suspect, deliberately so. In terms of humour, I certainly found more to laugh at on an average day in a school staff room than we are presented with here. And not very much seems to happen (at least on stage) even though the ending is unexpectedly brutal. It is really only after leaving the theatre that one starts to think more deeply about the concept. We hardly take much notice of the severe loneliness and isolation which many of the characters experience nor of the considerable problems they face. In the workplace, or even in social settings, how often do we hear about issues which friends and colleagues endure, but do little to really help? Similarly, we British often prefer to smooth things over for a quiet life, rather than tackle issues head-on and solve them. So, Eddie fails to 'crack the whip' when his teachers leave classes early, and we are shocked when Henry uses his new-found power, even if it is the 'right' thing to do, at least in terms of the school's paying customers. This may not be the funniest play in town right now, but with considerable depth and reflecting many peculiarities of the British it is rather more than a simple comedy, and all the more potent and thought-provoking as a result.
Note: This Review is from a preview performance.
"A great play, beautifully directed and acted by an outstanding cast — but it is also an evening tinged with sadness. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"As Quartermaine might say of one of his student's compositions, all the component parts are there, but lacks flair."
Alice Jones for The Independent
"A rueful social comedy that stands up well to revival and gives star billing to Rowan Atkinson, who reminds us in his first straight play in 25 years that he is a highly capable actor...Immaculate production.
Michael Billington for The Guardian