‘Quatermaine’s Term’ at Wyndhams Theatre

Simon Gray’s 1981 play is set in the shabby staff room of a small language school in Cambridge, some time in the 1960s, or at least in an era when the casual national stereotyping of the Japanese and German students by their teachers was an integral part of break time chat.

Each of the characters is disappointed, and nearly going over the edge as a result of the various travails of their lives, a troublesome teenage daughter, a severely ill mother, an unfaithful husband, being prone to a tiresome number of minor accidents.  We hear about the lives off stage without ever seeing any of the other characters; indeed the joint headmaster, the maker of difficult decisions is also never seen, even if much of the dialogue is about what his reaction to this or that might be.

And at the centre of the play sits Quatermaine, by everyone’s acknowledgement not a very good teacher, forgetful and absent minded, a fixture, but also a void.  Apparently liked by all his colleagues, given his extreme passivity one can only assume they are projecting virtues on to his personality to make up for the amiable blankness they see there.

It’s an interesting structure around which to build a play, lives of quiet desperation recounted either purposefully or obliquely through the conversations in the staff room, with a central protagonist who does virtually nothing but sit in a scruffy leather arm-chair and agree with everything that is said.

Richard Eyre’s production plays it straight: a traditional set of sofas, wooden lockers and French windows, on which the curtain falls at the end of each Act.  He has cast Rowan Atkinson as Quatermaine, a decision which has drawn in the crowds, and some fairly generous reviews in the newspapers.

But, unfortunately,  none of these features meant that the play engaged me on any level at all.  Instead, it felt interminable; each time the curtain fell at the end of a scene, my heart sank, as it meant there had to be yet another one to come.  You already know that I’m a notoriously bad judge of comedy, so it may not be helpful if I say that one line did make me smile. (The rest of the audience appeared to find additional things to laugh at.)  But equally I felt little sympathy with the bathos of the ending.

The perception of the success of the casting of Atkinson, known for his rubber face and body physicality in such a static role, will depend on your liking or not of the actor, as to my eye he played the same character of ticks, pursed lips and wild eyebrow movements that he always does, just this time sitting down.  Given the indulgent applause he received at the curtain call, I think mine may be a minority opinion.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?

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