Sunday, 21 April 2013

Theatre Review: Quartermaine’s Terms

by Laura Burden

'Quartermaine's Terms' by Simon Gray; directed by Richard Eyre and produced by Michael Codron; performed at Wyndham's Theatre.

Rowan Atkinson and Conleth Hill
in Quartermaine's Terms
(image: Independent)

Looking at the list of West End productions this Easter break, the dominant feeling was one of being spoilt for choice. Simon Stephen’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a must-see (at some point) and Peter and Alice and The Audience sound compelling. The Book of Mormon would at least be a talking point. Many of the plays currently onstage hearken back to the past – recent political history, the classics of children’s fiction or the comparatively innocent days of the ‘cacophonous’ gramophones and eccentric maids  in Lindsay Posner’s new version of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy.
The play I eventually settled on, despite having been written in 1981, also recalls a previous era and in fact is very reminiscent of Rattigan’s plays with the discrete group of characters and the setting of a single, comfortable middle-class room.  Like another of Rattigan’s works (The Browning Version), Quartermaine’s Terms focuses on a spectacularly unsuccessful schoolmaster. Rowan Atkinson plays St John Quartermaine, teaching English in a school for foreign pupils in Cambridge. We soon find, through the interactions between other teachers on the rare occasions when St John is not relaxing in his usual armchair, that his lessons mostly involve telling his pupils stories and reminiscing about his university life. Later in the play he fails even to arrive at his lessons, falling asleep in his chair after lunch and awakening only when his colleagues re-enter the staffroom when the bell has gone for the end of the day.
It would not be difficult for St John’s colleagues to be more professional despite their own eccentricities and personal failings. Anita (Louise Ford) is desperately unhappy in her marriage to an unfaithful husband; Henry (Conleth Hill) struggles with a highly strung and precocious teenage daughter; Derek (Will Keen) is dedicated to his students but his earnestness is continually undermined by his own clumsiness – on the first day of term he arrives with the seat of his trousers ripped open from his cycle ride in. Another colleague, Melanie (Felicity Montagu) is the consummate frustrated sixties spinster, giving her life to nursing her ageing mother and turning to evangelism. Most interesting on author Simon Gray’s part is the fact that the school has two headmasters and we only meet one of them. Eddie, in a way that is redolent of Dickens’ characters Spenlow and Jorkins, refers to how busy and distressed the unseen Thomas is when trying to control his recalcitrant colleagues: he speaks of Thomas being “besieged by Germans” when St John sleeps through a lesson. The audience soon infer, however, that within the context of the time Eddie’s colleagues are tacitly supportive of him: he and Thomas live together and are clearly in a relationship, and the play is set before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.
It is a traditional production that has enjoyed and suffered mixed reviews. My view was that Richard Eyre successfully rendered a touching exposure of loneliness and betrayal but that the moments of comedy that exist in the script could have been timed more precisely. Those I know who have enjoyed it most have worked in schools: perhaps the play’s depiction of staffroom politics and a certain breed of teacher means little to those not having experienced such a setting. The casting of Rowan Atkinson may have filled the house but many struggled with his presence on stage: St John Quartermaine is a foolish and an often silent character - but he is not a buffoon and it was difficult to appreciate the poignancy of his distress towards the end when the lines were being spoken by the man we all think of as Mr Bean. This was a solid production (indeed, Time Out gave it a ‘B+’) that happily filled an evening but will not rank high in a lifetime’s worth of theatre.
It would be interesting to see what PGS students could do with Quartermaine’s Terms: its staffroom setting and the even balance of male and female roles would make it the ideal school play. We would also be celebrating the work of a local author: Simon Gray (1926-2008) was born on Hayling Island.

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