Sir Richard Eyre is no stranger to the work of the late playwright Simon Gray, having directed his final play The Last Cigarette at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre back in 2009.

Now Eyre is bringing one of Gray’s more famous works to Brighton ahead of a West End run, with Rowan Atkinson in the title role.

“I wouldn’t say Gray was underrated in his lifetime,” says Eyre in a break from rehearsals at London’s Jerwood Space. “His best plays appear to me to be incredibly good – and the best are Butley and Quartermaine’s Terms.

“The characters are drawn in such detail, one could almost say with a novelist’s detail in the sense we are aware of their lives beyond the stage. That is a tremendous skill.”

Unlike Butley, which was at Theatre Royal Brighton last year with The Wire’s Dominic West in the title role, there isn’t a great charismatic character at the centre of Quartermaine’s Terms.

While the brilliant lecturer Butley is a larger-than-life alcoholic bully determined to control everyone around him as his life falls apart, St John Quartermaine is an incompetent teacher, but a kind, pleasant and agreeable fixture in his language school’s staffroom.

“He’s sort of a black hole at the centre,” says Eyre. “He’s a charming, passive black hole – an utterly decent man who lives in his own bubble in a different time scheme to everybody else.”

On first glance it doesn’t seem a natural fit for the actor behind the overly confident spy Johnny English or Blackadder, whose wit shook the Elizabethans, Georgians and First World War trenches.

But when producer Michael Codron heard Rowan Atkinson wanted to return to a straight play for the first time in 25 years, he was an automatic choice for the role.

“He’s a wonderful and colourful actor,” explains Eyre. “But his desire was to do a play in which he was part of an ensemble rather than a play where he was at the forefront and centre.”

Quartermaine acts as the staffroom confidant, always available to listen to his self-obsessed colleagues’ problems.

But when a new principal comes on the scene, his future at the language school looks uncertain.

Part of what attracted Eyre to the play is a theme he says has run through much of his work – the gap between what people say and what they think.

“Everybody in the play is in some way putting up a front,” he says. “All of us put up a front – we don’t show our full selves, even to our friends.

“What fascinates me is what lives below. There is a wonderful thing that Chekhov said: ‘We all live lives of quiet desperation’ and that’s absolutely true of the characters in Quartermaine’s Terms.

“Quartermaine is like an iceberg: you see only a tenth of what is going on. Everything is closed with his emotions and thoughts.”

The setting is also important in the play. Although it was penned in the mid-1970s, the action is set in the early 1960s, what Eyre describes as “the last gasp of a sort of courtly age”.

“In some ways that is what Quartermaine represents,” says Eyre. “He’s a charming but out-of-touch defender of another world.

“That distance has meant the play hasn’t actually dated. Loneliness and friendship, despair and happiness don’t change with time.”

They may sound heavy themes for something which purports to be a comedy.

“It’s a comedy that cuts deep,” says Eyre. “It’s a play that makes you laugh but also touches your heart.”

The play takes place over several years, although it falls short of the big social revolution of the mid-to-late 1960s.

“I was at university in Cambridge from 1961 to 1964,” says Eyre. “I wouldn’t say it was a time of revolution. I was aware of it afterwards, from 1966 onwards. “I’m the oldest person in the room, so people keep saying to me things like, ‘What did people wear at this time?’ and I can’t remember anything! I’m the living example of what they say about the 1960s – if you can remember it, you weren’t really there.”

Atkinson is being backed by what Eyre describes as a “premiere league cast”, including Conleth Hill, Will Keen, Felicity Montagu and Malcolm Sinclair.

Quartermaine’s Terms is opening in Brighton and also going to Bath before the show transfers to the West End at London’s Wyndham Theatre.

But Eyre is keen to point out that these preview shows are not public rehearsals.

“For me, they are performances,” he says. “We are not trying out a show in Brighton, we are bringing a show to Brighton that we hope will give Brighton audiences a very good evening.

“The show will change but Brighton will not see a half-finished show. It’s a painting, not a sketch we are adding colour to.”

As for Eyre himself, he has many plans in the pipeline once Quartermaine’s Terms is under way.

His lengthy CV has included stints in charge of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, Nottingham Playhouse and London’s National Theatre. As a director he has earned Olivier awards for Guys And Dolls (1982), King Lear (1998) and Hedda Gabler (2006), as well as the 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award.

He has also directed operas at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and New York’s Met, taken the blockbuster musical revival of Mary Poppins to the West End and Broadway, and on television directed and produced shows in the BBC’s Play For Today strand.

Last year he directed the two Henry IV sections of BBC Two’s Shakespeare epic four-parter The Hollow Crown. In the pipeline later this year are a production of The Pajama Game at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and a return to New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

“I don’t have a lot of unfulfilled ambitions,” he says. “My biggest ambition is to keep working. I’m 70 next year and I hope I have at least another 15 years of work to go.”

Rowan Atkinson on Quartermaine's Terms:

On how the role came about...

“It came up because I was asked by Michael Codron, a producer with whom I worked previously in the 1980s.

“He was the person who first brought me into the West End with a show that Richard Curtis and I did in the then Globe in 1981 called Rowan Atkinson In Review.

“We worked together again in a set of one-act plays by Chekhov called The Sneeze in 1989. We’ve bumped into each other on the odd occasion since but haven’t worked together.

“I think, rather oddly, he saw me being myself in a documentary about Blackadder – there was a moment when he saw me walking across a castle esplanade and for some reason it made him think I would be suitable casting for St John [Quartermaine].

“Maybe he was just reminded of my presence in life rather than any particular quality from the walk. Maybe he perceived a hint of loneliness or self-containment.

“It was simply because we went back to Alnwick Castle and our producer and I wandered round in the hope that it would encourage thoughts and conversation about the making of the series. I suppose the aimless wandering was what grabbed Michael Codron.”

On what attracted him to the part of Quartermaine...

“I knew the play because I had seen the original production with Edward Fox and had enjoyed it very much.

“In the end you’ve got to believe you can play the part as well as anybody could. You have to believe that whether it’s true or not.

“There is something about the character that interested me. He is such an empty, vague, dreamy figure. He’s quite difficult to get your hands on.

“Most of the characters I’ve played – and I’d include Mr Bean – tend to be rather singular, lonely, self-centred people. I suppose it fits in that mould.

“I tend not to play characters who are the heart of the party. They tend to be rather stand-offish figures. I don’t know whether that’s indicative of my personality or not.

“It feels like quite a tricky part to nail because of the lack of footholds cut into the rock. They are either invisible or very shallow. There is not much help in trying to define the character.

“All he is, is very vague and dreamy, sweet-natured and kind. There is a slightly ethereal, rather nebulous nature to him. It’s quite difficult for the other characters to understand what he’s about. Occasionally you hear them talk in a kindly way about him but there is undoubtedly a slightly impenetrable nature to him.

“I think maybe I share with him a capacity to be sitting in a room for ten minutes and doing absolutely nothing apart from staring at the wallpaper. That ability to let your mind wander is something I’m quite good at. That’s certainly the way Quartermaine works.

“It’s probably a mistake to try and find too many common factors in characters you play because it implies you’re returning to the same well. I think variety is the spice of life. The main variety that Quartermaine will provide me is he is not overtly comic. There is comedy in the way he behaves and interacts with others but he is certainly not a joke teller. The jokes come out of his rather singular and vague attitude.”

On Quartermaine...

“It must be said that Quartermaine is a very sedentary part. If your ambition is to expend as little physical energy while acting then Quartermaine would be your role.

“All he does is sit in an armchair and three or four times leave the room and come back in.

“I don’t anticipate needing to contain myself as your limbs should follow your acting instincts. I’m not normally someone who has problems controlling his limbs.

“Quartermaine is so out of touch that he doesn’t really qualify to be a teacher. He fails in a number of important ways such as falling asleep in the lesson and drifting off into anecdotes about his own life.

“From a teaching point of view it is made clear that he is not a good teacher at all. I don’t think I had any teacher as bad as him.

“Like all characters you feel there are hints of a number of individuals, some of whom are teachers, some people you’ve met.

“Certainly he acts like someone who is much older than he is. Even though I don’t think his mind is going, he acts like a person whose mind is going. He’s not very old but he’s acting like someone who is very old.”

On returning to theatre...

“What’s great from any actor’s point of view is the autonomy you enjoy on stage.

“You are in complete command of your performance, whereas in film or TV there is lighting, editing, direction, many other manipulators of your performance and how you come across.

“In a theatre you are in absolute control for the duration of your time on stage. And that’s very pleasing from the point of view of someone like me who likes to be in control.

“I’ve discovered with Oliver! [Atkinson played Fagin in the 2009 West End revival directed by Rupert Goold] that I feel quite comfortable onstage. I think I understand live theatre and live audiences.

“It is amazing how quickly people forget. Despite my background in student revue and tours and the West End, numbers of mature and senior people came to me during Oliver! saying, ‘Have you ever done theatre before?’

“I’m much looking forward to the job of rehearsing it, which is always the fun bit. The performance is just the justification for everyone’s wages.”

  • Quartermaine's Terms is at Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, from Tuesday, January 8, to Saturday, January 12. Starts 7.45pm, 2.30pm matinees on Thurs and Sat, tickets from £15. Call 0844 8717650