On the surface, this 1981 play by Simon Gray is a classic West End comedy: Tim Hatley’s comfortable drawing room set for Richard Eyre’s production even boasts a set of French windows. But soon the play’s preoccupation with loneliness and its sharp critique of English detachment begins to mingle with the comic observation. This is in fact the staff common room at an English language school in the early 1960s, a microcosm of national shortcomings. It’s the teachers’ pit-stop between the rigours of the class-room and the strains of their domestic lives. And it is here that St John Quartermaine, an affable, middle-aged bachelor, appears to have got stuck – almost literally in Rowan Atkinson’s performance. Atkinson barely moves from the leather armchair where he both begins and ends the play, glued to its comforting contours as the world around him moves on.
Atkinson’s performance is, as his character would say, “terrific”. There’s no Mr Bean mugging here – rather he gives us a delicately shaded picture of searing loneliness masked by breezy bonhomie. His character is the office oddball: an inadequate teacher and a lonely bachelor, whose eagerness for human contact is used by his colleagues, but rarely acknowledged by them. Atkinson pitches his performance perfectly, so that you feel for him and his increasing inability to connect with life, but simultaneously sense that you too would resist an evening with him. The scene in which teacher after teacher turns down his offer of tickets to a play is desolate.
There’s a running gag about the play he wants to see – no-one can quite remember whether it is Strindberg, Ibsen or Chekhov. And there are elements of all those writers here, most notably Chekhov. But Gray gives us a peculiarly English version of misdirected lives, unrequited love, marital misery and aching loneliness, all papered over with a layer of cheery small-talk. There’s an array of heartache here: among the casualties are the single woman (Felicity Montagu), the accident-prone newcomer (Will Keen), the blustering father (Conleth Hill) of a depressive teenager, the sweet-natured wife (Louise Ford) of a serial adulterer.
But while the characters are beautifully defined by the cast, there is something too rigged, too pick-and-mix about them to quite ring true. And too often the comedy feels laboured and dated, making the play feel arch and artificial in places – a problem Eyre’s poignant production can’t quite overcome. The final moments, however, as Quartermaine quietly realises he has no place in a changing world, are devastating.