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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndham's


  (L to R) Louise Ford, Malcolm Sinclair and Matthew Cottle/ Ph: Nobby Clark

A test of Rowan Atkinson's first serious stage performance in 25 years is whether or not his legions of Mr Bean fans will leave the theatre satisfied. I think they will.

In Simon Gray's 1981 play he plays the English language tutor of a Cambridge college for foreign students. Although, most of the time he sits in his staff room armchair never quite comprehending what is going on around him. In the year or three over which the inaction takes place, Quartermaine's fellow teachers Henry (Conleth Hill) and Melanie (Felicity Montagu) almost have an affair, and their colleague Mark (Matthew Cottle) almost finishes his novel. Richard Eyer's very solid if uninspired production drifts along like a punt on Cambridge's Cam, a river about which Quartermain relates frustratingly incomplete reminiscences.

Occasionally some of the students complain about Quartermaine's work methods. Though as he doesn't work and has no method it's hard for them to be specific beyond his not turning up to their class. This is a play about life lived in stasis. It is an environment Gray knew well from his days as a tutor. The normal pressures of work don't quite apply. It appears that it's not actually necessary to do your job in this place as long as you are a constant presence. Politeness is key. And because Quartermaine would prefer to stay in the staff room even while the rest of the staff are on holiday, he has become as indispensable as that cosy armchair in which he almost constantly and passively sits.

It is during the sitting that Atkinson deploys that gormless, bewildered expression that made his Bean such a wordless international hit. True, there is an added depth here. It emerges that Quartermain isn't in the staffroom almost 24/7 to further or protect the thing that might be laughably called his career, but because he is lonely. And here Atkinson is at his most touching, transmitting the loneliness of a man who exists in solitude even when he is sitting in a room full of people.

But Atkinson relies so much on those expressions of his – or rather Bean's – there is little sign here that he has the acting mettle to take on deeper roles, or transmit less shallow emotions.

However, the Chekhovian genius of Gray's play remains. It lies partly in that so very little actually happens on the way to the play's great moments of drama and change. The former arrives most memorably when Will Keen's long-term temporary teacher Derek is sick and tired of being passed over for a permanent position while Quartermaine does nothing to preserve or deserve his. It's a wonderfully cathartic scene in which Derek shatters the civility of the staffroom. It's even reminiscent of Chekhov's Vanya, who lays into the self-important Serebryakov. Atkinson gives us little sense of the wound such an attack must have inflicted, or later, the fear his Quartermaine must have felt when his terms of employment are threatened. But Bean fans will get everything they paid for, and a little more. Although that doesn't necessarily mean he has passed the test.


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