First Night: Quartermaine's Terms; Wyndham's Theatre, London
Atkinson gives a masterclass in awkward for return to the stage
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
There is a good many moments in the second episode of this psychological thriller that deserve refle...
The opening titles squeal ‘Never Can Say Goodbye…’. Oh Lord how I wish I could heave this series off...
Even though there was a complete absence of our favourite odd couple Brienne and Jaime, we got anoth...
'He was lucky he didn't die' - George Michael fell out of speeding car onto M1 motorway, according to eye witness
Further Space Oddity: Jeremy Paxman grills British astronaut Major Tim Peake in weirdly aggressive Newsnight interview
Coronation Street triumphs over EastEnders at British Soap Awards 2013
Cannes Film Festival 2013 review: Behind The Candelabra - Michael Douglas brilliantly captures Liberace's showmanship
The Freemasons' Code: Dan Brown reveals the message that told him the door to the lodge is open
- 1 Gay couple beaten in park urge MPs to moderate language on gay marriage
- 2 After woman sells virginity for $780,000, here are the results of our prostitution survey
- 3 China agrees to impose carbon targets by 2016
- 4 Exclusive: Championship clubs set to push for safe-standing trials
- 5 Far-right French historian, 78-year-old Dominique Venner, commits suicide in Notre Dame in protest against gay marriage
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.