The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore
other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to
normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
BBC 1987 and YouTube May 2022
1981 play is a sad comedy (or perhaps drama with chuckles) about the
small failures of small people and the ways their limitations actually
protect them from greater pains than they would be able to bear.
1987 BBC television production captures the quiet humour and quiet
pathos nicely, while also subtly changing the focus from the stage
setting is the faculty common room of a third-rate
English-for-foreigners school in Cambridge, run by a couple of elderly
men (only one of whom we see) and staffed by failures of various sorts.
a failed would-be novelist, a betrayed wife, a woman living in mutual
hatred with her invalid mother, a man coping with a deeply disturbed
adolescent daughter, a part-timer struggling to make ends meet, and the
at their centre is St John ('Sinjin' – the name suggests the failed
younger brother of a once aristocratic family) Quartermaine, a man so
lost in his own lack-of-thought that it takes tremendous effort to
connect to the real world.
1981 production was dominated by Edward Fox as Quartermaine, giving a
performance of absolute stillness The play became about the unknowable
mystery of what (if anything) was going on inside this man and how it
managed to shield him from the vicissitudes of life that so buffeted his
Fox is at the centre of this production, giving as brilliantly
understated a performance as he did onstage, repeatedly inserting a
pause between someone else's words or actions and his response, as we
watch his consciousness swim painfully up from whatever depths it has
been in to reach the surface.
the mere fact of translation to the screen changes the play. Fox was
onstage almost continuously, usually planted in the same armchair.
constantly stealing audience attention away from the more active other
characters just by doing nothing.
television version the camera chooses what we look at, and it is usually
whoever the individual moment is about, with Quartermaine offscreen. As
a result, this version is much more about the group, with Quartermaine
just one among a collection of losers.
does have his or her own story, in almost every case one of being slowly
defeated by life, but we are more aware of and concerned with them than
we were onstage.
play covers a period of about eighteen months, and each time we meet
them their lives have either changed radically for the worse or
continued along a downward path we sensed earlier, and we are left to
fill in the gaps.
I have made this sound too dark, I must repeat that there is a wry comic
tone to a lot of it. Vaguely sensing that Quartermaine is impervious to
pain, the others blithely make and break dates with him, use him as a
babysitter and dump their woes on him, and he bears all with equanimity.
part-timer is accident-prone and we begin to look forward to discovering
what part of his face or body will bear a plaster the next time we see
him. And the few students the school manages to attract are the subjects
of comic report and anecdote.
misstep of the film version lies in its opening out the action just
enough to show us the students wandering the halls and grounds. When we
never saw them we could imagine how few there were, but seeing them
makes the place seem more prosperous than we'd like to picture it.)
reduced his domination of the play, Edward Fox still gives a fascinating
performance and an object lesson in how less can be more in great
The supporting cast led by John Gielgud as the principal, Eleanor Bron as the mother's daughter and Peter Jeffrey as the daughter's father each take their moments of being centre stage, building rounded and sympathetic characterisations.
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