This is a night of firsts. Or rather of returns. It’s the first time that Rowan Atkinson has appeared in a straight play for a quarter of a century.
His last stint was in 1988, a series of one-act plays by Chekhov. Since then he has starred as Fagin in the 2009 revival of Oliver! and, more recently, brought the stadium down when he appeared as Mr Bean leading “Chariots of Fire” at the Olympics opening ceremony. It’s also the first time that Simon Gray’s school tragicomedy has been revived in the West End since its premiere in 1981.
So was it worth the wait? Well, the role of St John Quartermaine, ineffectual teacher, eternal bachelor, loner and largely mute sounding-board certainly looks as if it were made for Atkinson. The play opens with him sitting, Bean-like, in a slightly too-small leather armchair in the staff room of an English language school in Cambridge. Pigeon-toed, knock-kneed and splayed-fingered, no-one does awkward like Atkinson. And when, after a few, glorious moments of this mute physical comedy, he finally speaks, out come those familiar Blackadder plosives. No-one says “jam-packed with punts” like Atkinson. What isn’t so familiar, or expected, perhaps, is the tenderness and quiet heart he brings to the part.
Quartermaine is the still (literally - he barely leaves his chair all evening) centre around which the chaos of the school whirls. He is a man with, as one colleague tells him, “an unerring ability not to let the world impinge on him”. And yet it does its best to impinge as each of his fellow teachers breaks out of the usual chummy break-time chat to reveal their domestic demons – be it an overbearing sickly mother, an unfaithful husband or a disturbed daughter. Loneliness, it turns out, can come in many different shapes.
The great irony, and beauty, of the play is that these teachers of English, proud bearers of language, are so hopeless at talking to one another. So used to standing up in front of a room of people who can’t answer back, they have forgotten how to listen and how to confide.
Gray’s script is brilliant at pinpointing the everyday courtesies that mask real, meaningful communication. And to begin with, Richard Eyre’s production, blessed with an almost absurdly classy cast of character actors, runs like a well-drilled comic masterclass. Malcolm Sinclair is unbearable as the windbag head, Will Keen is a fine Northern neurotic and Conleth Hill skips through his part with some wonderfully deft clowning. Atkinson has the least lines of them all – and half of them consist solely of the word “terrific” –but he imbues them with a heart-tugging blend of cheeriness and loneliness.
In the second half, it loses momentum and the shift from enjoyable staff-room farce to darker drama feels strenuous. The RP gets crisper, the pratfalls clumsier and spying on the working lives of unhappy teachers starts to feel rather too much like hard work. As Quartermaine might say of one of his student’s compositions, the component parts are all there, but lacks flair.