Thursday, 7 February 2013

Theatre review: Quartermaine's Terms

It can be very tempting sometimes to make "meh" the entirety of a review. Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms has thundered back into the West End thanks to the involvement of Rowan Atkinson, in a rare stage appearance, in the title role. With the star casting come prices to match, the cheapest ticket in the gods almost £30, and little sign of ticket deals around. The hefty payday for the producers seems a churlish way to open a review but Richard Eyre's production at Wyndham's leaves you wondering what other motivation there could be to create such a bland evening at the theatre. We're in "the 1960's" (I won't pretend that misplaced apostrophe in the opening caption didn't prejudice me a bit right from the off,) in the staff room of an English language school in Cambridge.

St John Quartermaine (Atkinson) is a particularly useless teacher, who barely shifts from his favourite chair in the staff room. Around him Melanie (Felicity Montagu) has a sick mother at home to preoccupy her, while nursing regrets over an old relationship with colleague Henry (Conleth Hill.) Henry himself has family issues on his mind, as does Mark (Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle,) whose doomed ambitions to be a novelist have left him unaware he's ignoring his wife and son. As all his colleagues go through personal crises, the lonely Quartermaine looks on, unable to get any of them to treat him as more than a sounding board and occasional babysitter.

As a star vehicle for Atkinson it's a bit of a perverse choice, as most of the time he's the play's outsider, stuck in his armchair while the real action goes on around him. Fans of Blackadder and Mr Bean who came to the show for that reason would probably feel short-changed, which may be why a bit too much of both those famous creations creeps into his performance. He and Will Keen as accident-prone new teacher Derek are also frequently too soft-spoken to be heard from the gods, and following their dialogue was sometimes an effort.

Other performances compensate a bit: Montagu has both some of the best comedy and the most intense pathos of the play; Cottle is largely typecast as ever but at least this loser finds a strength as the story goes on; and Conleth Hill is as usual an ebullient scene-stealer, who also can turn on a sixpence to the play's tragic side.

But these are really moments within the performances rather than the effect of the whole show. I'm not a massive fan of Gray's work at the best of times but I still felt like there was something under-explored by this production. As a rather bitter comedy Quartermaine's Terms was never going to be raucous, but this isn't really balanced out by the pathos that could have been there. Gray's plays, steeped in a particular kind of 20th century academia, have found some modern relevance in other recent revivals, but on Tim Hatley's wood-paneled set this one feels like a cosy period piece with little to say. Beige, was how Christopher described it; given the author, I suggested it was more grey.

Quartermaine's Terms by Simon Gray is booking until the 13th of April at Wyndham's Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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