In his curmudgeon’s gospel The Smoking Diaries, the late Simon Gray rued his unjust neglect by the modern theatre. In the main, this neglect continues: it is a mockery that, while in the West End you can’t move for productions of Alan Ayckbourn’s parochial seaside-postcard farces, Gray’s humane dramas are revived only rarely. Happily, such is the weight of the talent involved in Wyndham’s Theatre’s revival of Quartermaine’s Terms that it’s almost like an attempt to cram years’ worth of overdue recognition into one production. The director is the formidable Richard Eyre; the star is Rowan Atkinson, in his first straight play for 25 years; and the producer – in his theatrical swansong – is Michael Codron, long-time champion of the likes of Pinter, Stoppard and Frayn, and producer of the original Quartermaine’s Terms in 1981.
The play is set in the typical Gravian milieu of academia, or at least the fringes of it: in this case, the staff room of a mediocre English language college in Cambridge in the early 1960s. The titular St John Quartermaine (Atkinson) is a kindly but lonely middle-aged bachelor who has been at the college since its inception; an ineffectual teacher but a warm human being, he spends most of the play sitting wistfully in a leather armchair, slowly but surely sliding into irrelevance. St John Quartermaine expresses a kind of Englishness, that of courtesy, decency and the brave face. His essential benevolence and passivity make him a natural sounding board for the domestic dramas of the other members of the staff.
Gray’s staff room – beautifully designed by Tim Hatley – is a parade of neurotics: none are unpleasant as such, but all are too wrapped up in their own private crises to give due attention to the others. Indeed, in many ways the play is a study of human inattentiveness to others. Names and details are frequently confused, sentences often unfinished. It is in its exploration of loneliness that the play truly packs an emotional punch, particularly in a heartrending scene in which Quartermaine’s colleagues bail out one by one on going to the theatre with him.
The ensemble cast are unfailingly excellent: Malcolm Sinclair is stirring as Eddie Loomis, the ageing, fading co-principal; Felicity Montagu superbly conveys the torment of Melanie, as she cares for her psychotic mother; Matthew Cottle’s mix of vanity and vulnerability as deluded novelist Mark is well suited to a role once played by Kelsey Grammer. However, the ultimate triumph belongs to Rowan Atkinson, who movingly brings out Quartermaine’s gentle nature and touching desire for companionship. Given his ability to communicate desperate loneliness in a vacant stare, it is fitting that Atkinson’s last dramatic stage role, in 1988, was a collection of Chekhov shorts.
Simon Gray’s exclusion from the post-war British canon owed much to his subject matter of middle-class delusion and desperation; this was seen as less weighty and ‘relevant’ than the state-of-the-nation behemoths David Hare and Howard Brenton. Thirty years later, however, it is clear that the reality was the reverse: Gray’s works reflect universal emotional truths, while many of the political plays are now irretrievably dated. The winter of discontent is now long passed, but there will always be loneliness.
Quartermaine’s Terms is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until 13 April. For more information and tickets, see the show’s website.