By Simon Gray
Directed by Harry Burton
Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton
Date: Thursday 19th June 2008
This is a much kinder play than I’m used to seeing from Simon Gray. Although all the characters have their less likeable qualities, there wasn’t so much unpleasantness around as usual. Quartermaine himself was an affable chap, doing his best to please everyone, and spending most of his days in dreamland, even when he was supposed to be teaching. He reminded me of Firs from The Cherry Orchard – he always sat in the same chair in the staff room, and at the end it seemed likely that he would still be sitting there when everyone came back for the next term, even though he’d been fired.
The setting was a school for teaching English language and culture to foreign students. The other teachers included an older spinster who lives with her invalid mother, a woman married to an academic chap who is having an affair with another woman, a husband who is having an affair with his typewriter and whose wife therefore leaves him, taking their son with her, a new man who shows a remarkable affinity for accidents, and an older academic sort who is perfectly capable of talking at great length in learned detail without actually adding anything to the conversation. The proprietors are a male couple, one of whom we never see.
The set was a marvellous depiction of a staff room back in the late fifties/early sixties. The walls were scruffy, the furniture shabby, but there was lots of room. There was no plot as such, just a tour round the different characters and their ups and downs. Husbands and wives split up and got back together again. The spinster apparently bumped off her mother by pushing her down the stairs, to judge by her reactions to a police visit, about another, unrelated matter of some students trying to kill and cook a swan. She then gets religion, only to end up some time later on the fags and booze, looking desperately unhappy. The new boy ends up a permanent member of staff (just as well, as he seems to be the most hard-working of the lot of them), and experiences a brief accident-free period during his engagement, only for normal service to resume once he’s married. The older academic takes over the school when the unseen proprietor dies, and finally someone has the courage to sack the one man who doesn’t really contribute to the school’s purpose. It’s a sad moment, but inevitable.
Although we don’t get much of an explanation of why Quartermaine is the way he is, there are some oblique references to his aunt’s house, and some childhood fear of swan’s wings. We seem to be getting a number of plays and productions at the moment that don’t attempt a psychological explanation of their characters, and it makes a nice change. Steve spotted a number of Chekhovian parallels throughout the play – I’ve no idea if this was intentional on the author’s part or not. Anyway, we enjoyed it very much, and the performances were all excellent, getting a lot of subtle detail across about each character so that I felt I knew them all personally.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me