By Simon Gray
Directed by Richard Eyre
Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre
Date: Saturday 16th March 2013
Henry David Thoreau wrote that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, a quote which I have always remembered but never understood until today. Simon Gray’s work exemplifies this concept, particularly in this play where the characters present bright and cheerful facades to cover the truth of their inner despair. We get to see both the inner and outer aspects of their lives during a performance, and thankfully there’s enough humour to lighten the load.
The set was as usual for this play, with an old leather armchair front left for Quartermaine himself, other seats across the front, a table and chairs behind, lockers on the right and a small kitchen area back right. Other staff room paraphernalia – books, filing cabinet, etc. – were dotted around, with entrances at the back and on the right. The style and costumes were all appropriate for the early 1960s.
The performances were all excellent, and there was plenty of laughter from the audience. Rowan Atkinson played the central character really well, and a lot of the humour was down to his performance. His character came across as more cartoonish than the others, and this portrayal brought out less of the sadness in Quartermaine’s life that I experienced in Nathaniel Parker’s previous interpretation (June 2008), but it still worked very well, and with such a strong cast the production as a whole was excellent. Conleth Hill was marvellous as the erudite older teacher who eventually takes over the school, while Will Keen wrung every last drop of social embarrassment out of the accident prone but hard-working Derek Meadle. Malcolm Sinclair was suitably stroppy and forgetful as the headmaster, and the rest of the cast were equally as good. Well worth the visit, although I wouldn’t care to spend much time with any of these people in real life.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me
“quiet desperation” makes me think of Martha Bernick in Pillars of the Community. She’s trapped in an unfulfilling life. The final straw comes when she realises that her crush on a certain young man is never going to lead anywhere. Well-played, her suppressed reaction can have a shattering effect on the audience while the character she is addressing remains oblivious.