Wednesday 10 April 2013

Quartermaine's Terms

Wyndham’s Theatre
25th February, 2013

‘We see a character in a room: doors open, people enter and leave and, by a remorseless accumulation of incident, that character’s doom is sealed.’

Rowan Atkinson returns to the West End to St. John (say “Sin-jon”) Quartermaine after playing Fagin in Oliver! (2009) to do his first play since the 1980s. Richard Eyre’s revival production of Simon Gray’s play set in the staff room of an English school for foreigners in Cambridge in the 1960s is triumphant – I would totally recommend it.

I have so much to say about this play, so I’ll start with the title: although ‘Terms’ could refer to things being on Quartermaine’s Terms, this is ironic as he’s a very passive character. His passivity is exemplified in one character’s line of ‘St. John you have an amazing ability to let the world impinge on you’. Also, it wasn’t until I saw the play that I realised that ‘Terms’ refers to school terms which are the only markers for time in Gray’s play as Quartermaine lives an otherwise very uneventful life. As the person who seems happy babysitting for colleague’s children and doesn’t seem to mind when rejected by friends for the evening, he is the ‘perfect outsider’.

Eyre’s nuanced production begins with a sturdy white proscenium arch and a painted red, with black brushstrokes, curtain which perhaps hints at a modernising institution which still remains sturdy, thus indicating that faults lie elsewhere, namely in the individual characters themselves. Tim Hatley’s staff room design is impressively detailed even complete with false draw under the sink.

Although the play is not completely a comedy, fans of Rowan Atkinson won’t be disappointed, particularly as we get to see the inner depths and sad realities of this bumbling, optimistic character. Quartermaine’s high-pitched laugh and subtle head movements are enough to earn him a laugh. There is a moment in act two, scene two when Derek looks up to the top of the theatre and reflects ‘Love. Love.’ which is followed by Atkinson looking up as if confused by what Derek was doing. Similarly when Derek remarks about Daphne’s legs, Quartermaine confuses them with Derek’s legs, the laugh coming from a mere turn of the head. Atkinson’s comic genius is demonstrated throughout, but what is great about his performance is that he plays Quartermaine with utter truth. In fact, despite being sat in the upper circle, being able to see into Atkinson’s eyes meant that I truly believed his character and the sheer despair of it – strangely, it was a character that I many people can relate.

But this is certainly not a one-man show and I think it’s testament to Gray’s writing that I can still remember most of the characters’ names, all of whom change distinctly throughout the four year timespan. Louise Ford’s Anita gets pregnant twice, Conleth Hill’s Henry loses his wife Susan, Felicity Montagu’s Melanie becomes noticeably happier (indicated by the way she dresses) after her mother dies, and we see Malcolm Sinclair’s Eddie visibly age and lose his work partner Thomas, with whom there are hints of a homosexual relationship (although I didn’t fully infer that). We see Matthew Cottle’s Mark go through drastic changes with his facial hair along with his relationship and progress of his novel and we see Will Keen’s Derek (who is the new teacher who gets called Dennis and is clearly far superior to Quartermaine) learn his pupil’s names and go from desperately breaking down to being happy in his new relationship as well as go through several mysterious injuries. In the first scene of the second act, he shouts at the incompetent Quartermaine because he might be losing his job, and it is interesting that his back was to the audience for most of it until he softly says that he’s not begrudged which is when he turns back to the front. Atkinson’s reaction to this is stunning; he is left quivering by the end of the outburst.

The one character who doesn’t change throughout the play is Quartermaine. He is a constant sitting in the same chair, wearing the same suit. That is until the last scene when we see the staff (mostly reluctantly) gathered for drinks in the staff room with Quartermaine dolled up in a tuxedo, once again showing that he doesn’t have much to grasp onto in his life. His optimism is ultimately tragic as he is finally told that he won’t be needed any more, thus leaving for a very poignant moment.

Gray’s play asks questions, namely what happens to characters both on and offstage (see Mark Lawson’s article regarding offstage characters), but mainly we are wondering what happens to Quartermaine. He is essentially someone who is seen often reaching out for a friend but often turned down. There is a hilarious moment when a disrupted Melanie shoos off Quartermaine who is wittering on, tapping the table at which she’s trying to read. He keeps getting turned away, and we genuinely feel for him that when he does get many invitations, he ends up spending the evening somewhere he doesn’t want to be, being the selfless man he is.

I did wonder whether Eyre was supplying his audience with some theatre in-jokes. ‘Don’t bump into the furniture’ is a line often mocked as something a good actor manifests, but it was interesting how some of the characters either did or came close to bumping into the furniture at times, with Henry actually stepping into a bin at one point.

Each act (and indeed the whole play) is framed by Quartermaine sitting in his chair, but with Quartermaine quietly devastated by the news at the end his hand was quite visibly shaking as he said his final lines followed by the lights dimming.

‘We see a character in a room: doors open, people enter and leave and, by a remorseless accumulation of incident, that character’s doom is sealed.’

I think it is unfortunate for the production that it hasn’t been nominated for any Olivier Awards. Even if not for the acting, I think that Richard Eyre’s production is deserving of Best Revival. I enjoy the theatre and I might give five stars away too easily, but this production of Quartermaine’s Terms deserves it and it will remain one of my theatrical highlights of the year. With some powerful moments and extremely nuanced performances, it is – as Quartermaine would say – ‘terrific’.

Quartermaine’s Terms run at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 13th April, 2013.

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