I booked late to see Quartermaine’s Terms but on reflection am glad I made the effort, as I really enjoyed the evening.
Simon Gray’s 1981 play is set in the staff room of a school of English for foreigners in Cambridge and centres around St John Quartermaine, played here by Rowan Atkinson. The various other teachers come and go discussing their personal problems, their social lives and their students, whilst Quartermaine drifts through it all in a good-natured dormouse like daze. He also has a dozy quality when it comes to his teaching, every so often skipping lessons and being almost totally unaware of the names of any of his present or past students. When he does start to put his thoughts into words once emitted they fade and die – “these things between people - people one cares for – it’s hard to bear them”. One critic, who shall be nameless, uttered that he couldn’t understand why someone who teaches English could be so useless at stringing a sentence together. But surely that is the point. Poor old Quartermaine doesn't come first in the teaching stakes. The school for him is not necessarily his place of work but his life. A sad and lonely figure, one realizes early on in the play that his social life, apart from the odd baby sitting for Mark Sackling, a fellow teacher and would be novelist, played by Matthew Cottle, can be summarized on the back of a postage stamp. Actually none of the teachers, or indeed the co-owner of the school (one never sees his co-partner, Thomas) are remotely capable of expressing their feelings. The central irony of the piece exposed, for despite being English language teachers, they’ve all lost their self-editing button and listening skills, if, of course, they ever had them in the first place.
Simon Gray is a master of the character driven play. Although each character is bereft of the skills mentioned above, he conveys their inadequacies brilliantly. As such this tragicomedy does connect and, although Quartermaine, and indeed his colleagues come across as boring old whatsits, they still illicit our sympathy. Credit for this must also go to the excellent cast. Although one or two very nearly over egg their point, they just stop short of doing so and the play therefore has some extremely funny moments. Several of these moments are the result of Simon Gray’s use of off-stage characters. These include the aforementioned Thomas, a philandering husband, an absconding wife and mother from hell. They become as real as the characters on stage.
Richard Eyre has created a beautiful production, which highlights the dreadful domestic lives of each character. Few of them seem to want to go home. Malcolm Sinclair’s Eddie Loomis in particular hovers around in his bicycle clips not wanting to leave the confines of the staff room. Their embarrassment is flinchingly funny, never more so than the relationship between Felicity Montagu’s Melanie Garth and the bicycle riding Eddie. The awkwardness between them is brilliantly portrayed. In fact the whole cast is superb with no weak link. Rowan Atkinson is perfectly cast as Quartermaine with no Bean in sight and his handling of the final few moments of the play is spot on.
Quartermaine’s Terms can be summarized as a metaphor for that particular type of eccentric Englishness where no one actually says what’s bothering them - no one would probably listen if they did - one just knows that something isn’t quite right.