From the comically defined opening to the sadness of the final scene, the hallmark of Richard Eyre’s revival of “Quartermaine’s Terms” is the detail he teases out of his actors. Worried glances, flickers of hope, flinches of embarrassment all deepen Simon Gray’s 1982 group portrait of loneliness amid a crowd. The exception is Rowan Atkinson, whose disconnected St John Quartermaine is fully-fledged from curtain-up. But revealing his hand too soon gives the character almost nowhere to go and ultimately robs the otherwise tender evening of climactic pathos.
Something of a cross between Rattigan’s “The Browning Version” and Christopher Hampton’s portrait of diffidence “The Philanthropist” — both masterpieces of British understatement set in academia — this is actually Gray’s most Chekhovian play. The deluded characters are poised on the edge between comedy and tragedy and they also people a play in which although little happens, a quietly engrossing world is conjured.
Replacing action with the collision of characters both on and off stage, Gray restricts the activity to the staff room of a 1960s Cambridge school where English is taught to foreigners. As the school’s fortunes dwindle, the characters, paradoxically, become increasingly rich in texture.
The teachers tussle with their hopes and family lives, or lack thereof. Largely unknown to themselves, but comically laid out by the dramatist, nearly all of them are leading lives of quiet desperation.
Partly to cover the exposition and partly to establish characters with broad brushstrokes, Eyre goes for broke in the opening scene. Once that comic outline has been drawn, the actors spend the rest of the time quietly filling it in.
A marvelously pompous, erect Malcolm Sinclair is one of the head teachers. Reveling in his patrician manner, he is a walking monument to self-esteem dressed up as concern for others. Arguably the boldest perf, however, is that of Will Keen, who stops just deliciously short of exaggeration as hapless, gauche new teacher Derek, desperate to make a go of things.
Keen’s perfectly judged awkwardness is matched by the comic grandiosity of Conleth Hill, whose Henry sweeps about the room thinking nothing of corralling anyone and everyone to fit in with his plans and pretentiousness. Between them, Matthew Cottle’s blinkered Mark attempts to convince everyone — but mostly himself — that he’s going to complete his first novel.
Gray famously wrote better (and considerably more) for men than women, but both Louise Ford and Felicity Montagu offer outstanding work on the distaff side. The latter, initially very touching as a lovelorn spinster, builds bigger and bigger laughs as she grows into a woman on the verge of matricide. Ford, meanwhile, unostentatiously wins sympathy as a woman whose dismissive self-deprecation only just keeps her afloat in the troubled seas of her mistimed marriage.
In the midst of all this sits Atkinson, who never leaves his armchair except when asked by others seeking privacy or to teach a lesson – and sometimes not even then. From the distracted hovering of his hands to the fixed, vacant gaze, Atkinson plays him not as a man absenting himself from the confusing “stuff” between people which he cannot fathom, but more as someone bordering on the catatonic. That, alas, doesn’t allow for developing empathy.
The play is fashioned as his tragedy. To achieve that, Atkinson creates as complete a character as he does with Mr. Bean. But for all his evident sincerity, he turns Quartermaine’s downfall into a foregone conclusion. One appreciates the sadness, but your heart doesn’t break.