“I don’t want them dripping their filthy compassion over me”
Lonely teachers seem to be a bit of a recurring theme for Simon Gray – after Dominic West’s grizzled turn in Butley, we now get Rowan Atkinson slipping into obscurity in Quartermaine’s Terms. The play stretches over a couple of years at a dodgy English language school for foreign students in 1960s Cambridge and follows the relationships between the seven teachers as they all deal with their various crises that leave them feeling alone. The play carries a melancholy weight as understated tragicomedy is the dominant theme here but it is so muted, so low-key that it never really accrues the dramatic heft to make it matter.
Part of the problem lies in the constant referencing to Chekhov and his plays – aiming for Chekhovian depths sets a very high bar and for me, it just never reaches that level. It’s not a matter of acting – the company is full of some excellent actors and the way Gray has structured the play means that most of them get their moment to shine as their issues come to the fore. But their characters are all such social misfits that it is hard to really gain an interested foothold in their lives, even the main thrust of the play – Quartermaine’s increasing social isolation – somewhat works against this sort of engagement.
Atkinson epitomises this conflict – his Quartermaine, the archetypal lonely bachelor, needs to be internalised awkwardness personified but he never manages to fully submerge his considerable presence into the role. He gets the dysfunctional behaviour, tics and all, down to a tee but with so little to go on in terms of fully fledged characterisation, the play is actually more about his absence of character, I found it hard to really care too much about him. His tragedy is just too quotidian, too everyday to really merit much sympathy.
The stories of his colleagues are what drive the play along and with actors of this calibre, it is hard not to be sucked in by them. Malcolm Sinclair’s depressed gay man, Conleth Hill’s exhausted academic, Felicity Montagu’s dissatisfied spinster, Will Keen’s edgily nervous newcomer, all impress when given the opportunity though in all honesty, they do this by sacrificing a large amount of the subtlety that ought to embody their oddball lives. Richard Eyre’s production is certainly slick and full of the type of quality acting that justifies its place in the West End but it just wasn’t a play that convinced me of the merits that it has been accorded.