The Theatreguide.London Review
Wyndham's Theatre Spring 2013
Simon Gray's 1981 comedy-drama is his most Chekhovian, both in the sense that its humour is leavened by some bittersweet pathos and because each of its characters is living a drama that could easily be the centre of a differently-focussed version of the story.
Richard Eyre's new production doesn't capture all the play's sweet sadness, though it registers sufficiently in all the other areas to be worth seeing.
We're in a third-rate teaching-English-to-foreigners school, a bit of a cottage industry benignly watched over by the older gay couple who own it. The faculty is a collection of losers, like the man whose wife left him because he spends all his out-of-school time compulsively rewriting an unpublishable novel, and the woman whose husband is a serial adulterer.
One teacher is tormented by a witch of a mother, another frets over a deeply depressed teenage daughter, and one is such a nonentity that his colleagues can't remember his name.
And in the middle of all this is Quartermaine, amiable guy and useless teacher, perennially drowned so deep in his lack-of-thought that you can watch him swimming painfully to the surface to respond, several beats too late, to anything anyone says to him. More a part of the armchair he sits in than a person sitting in it, he forgets to go to class or, once there, can't rouse himself to say anything.
Ironically, though, Quartermaine's dimness is his salvation because, alone in the group, he's never conscious enough to be aware of his own unhappiness. The others take turns exploiting him (as babysitter or buffer at uncomfortable dinners) and dropping him, and he responds to all with amiable blankness.
The biggest loser among losers, and the ways they cope and interact – you can see the potential for both comedy and pathos. And Rowan Atkinson, whose long television career shows him to be a clown with an awareness of the dark underside to his jokes, makes an excellent Quartermaine.
Dropping most of the Blackadder/Bean mannerisms we are familiar with, he offers a nicely underplayed portrayal appropriate for the man who is hardly there at all, with the occasional ineffectual gesture or held-a-bit-too-long smile giving us a hint of the good nature within.
The rest of the cast have been directed to play their characters' comedy more than their drama, and while they find all the laughs, we get too rare glimpses of something sadder going on inside Felicity Montague's haunted daughter, Conleth Hill's worried father or Malcolm Sinclair's ageing boss.