Anyone looking for a strong, pacy story packed with gags should probably give Quartermaine’s Terms a miss.
Simon Gray’s 1981 play is more a series of sub-plots strung together – with much of the action taking place offstage – as seven teachers at a Cambridge English language school endure their own personal crises over the space of two years.
In the centre is the all-seeing but little-comprehending lonely St John Quartermaine who, sat in his battered armchair, is almost a fixture in the staffroom.
Rowan Atkinson gives a beautifully nuanced performance in the title role as the absent-minded teacher, with what little inner turmoil he has expertly represented by a twitch of his fingers or his awkward movements around the room.
But he is only part of an excellent ensemble cast, who allow their characters’ personal problems to seep out in the staffroom through half-revelations, unheard cries for help and, in the case of Felicity Montagu’s Melanie in the final scene, simply in a series of unsteady movements.
Particular stand-out performances come from Will Keen’s adenoidal, accident-prone and slightly creepy dictation teacher Derek Meadle, and Malcolm Sinclair’s ever-more doddery principal Eddie.
The play is a masterclass in subtlety and naturalistic performance, with the comedy coming from the awkward interpersonal exchanges and beautiful characterisation rather than a fast-moving plot and witty repartee.