By Simon Gray
Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until April 13, 2013
After gloriously demolishing the theme from Chariots of Fire at the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics, Rowan Atkinson returns in triumph to the London stage in this gem of a revival.
It also marks a swan song for the great producer Michael Codron, who has nurtured the careers of every significant British playwright since World War II, including producing and championing this play at its first outing in 1981. It is Gray’s best play and possibly one of the greatest British plays of the last 40 years.
It’s a study in stasis, and at its heart is Atkinson, who delivers a beautifully nuanced performance as the timid, genial Quartermaine.
A blundering Mr Nobody type, firmly ensconced in his crumbling leather arm chair, he watches the world go by and misses most of it. He teaches English, badly, to foreign students in a run down language school in Cambridge, a school that is puffed with its own self-importance but is most certainly second-rate.
The action, and what’s so great about this play is there is so little of it, takes place in the staff room as we are introduced to a motley sextet of teachers – all of them life’s could-have-beens – as they bustle in and out.
Gray’s ear for the diffident understatement of the English middle classes is unparalleled and the play is beautifully structured. Poor old Quartermaine goes from being stood-up by everyone in Act 1 to finding it necessary to juggle multiple and imploring invitations from the same lot in Act 2. He is also great on the solitude of the singleton and how they are much abused by their married friends.
Key to the success of the piece is the great Richard Eyre who directs it with a sure hand, packing it with telling detail, revealing the play’s richness layer upon layer. Over the course of the play we get to know not just the main characters but also their offstage partners or children.
The overwrought spinsterish Melanie (Felicity Montagu) is a typical example. Trapped in a dance of death with her stroke victim mother, who hates her, she is nevertheless required to play the role of the devoted daughter. Atkinson’s comic skill is at its upmost in a scene with her where he fidgets and rambles on about the beauty of swans while she tries to concentrate on a piece of work. The build up to her final eruption is joyous.
Matthew Cottle too is wonderfully narcissistic as the inevitable, talentless aspiring novelist of the bunch and Will Keen gives a gloriously agile, almost Mr Bean-like performance as the insecure, accident prone, part-time staff member Derek, whose pent-up rage about the unfairness of his position falls on deaf ears.
The production is blessed also with two of the greatest character actors on the London stage at present: Conleth Hill brings layers of comic invention to the camp and slightly ridiculous Henry, the pompous academic tutor, and Malcolm Sinclair is gloriously sniffy as the supercilious Eddie who, with his partner Thomas, presides over the school and drones on like his school bells.
Gray attains the mastery of Chekhov with this play, and it is great to see it revived after such a long time.