A lot of Rowan Atkinson’s charm relies on excess; a swarm of stuttered B’s, attenuated analogies and simple tasks lost in a loose-legged flurry. His current West End outing is, by comparison, an exercise in restraint – in an excellent ensemble cast where all violence of feeling and table-tipping anarchy are strictly offstage, his amiable descent into senility the brightest strand in a gently poignant and perfectly balanced evening.
The setting is one broadly echoed in Simon Gray’s other plays; a former English lecturer, he excels in dealing with the life of vaguely thwarted mid-century academic types, as typified by his play Butley. Seven teachers meet and grouse in the staff room of a 1960s English language school in Cambridge, making bleak pronouncements on the shifting composition of their classes, the impossibility of keeping track of their students, and hinting at the emotional misery that threatens to boil over the edges of their carefully constructed social selves. Comedy is provided by the unseen antics of a squabbling U.N. of nationalities at work and croquet, shadowy presences that inspire, exasperate or flit unhindered through the consciousnesses of their teachers. Scenes are separated by weeks, months, or even a year, accelerating each private narrative of desperation to its end, misaligning with the other characters’ needs with characteristically appalling timing.
Across the threads, there is a shared sense of loneliness, of a failure to find social comfort and to fit in; Quartermaine (Rowan Atkinson) epitomises these themes, as a single, hapless teacher who can’t teach, but genially presides over the staff room like a minor household deity. The pieces of invisible fishing line that seem to randomly animate his nose, mouth and eyebrows in Mr Bean are almost stilled here; Atkinson’s energy is largely sunk in upholstery, ensconced in an armchair which his fellow teachers remark that he never seems to leave.
His subtle and muted performance is matched by similarly sober – though far from literally so – outings from the rest of the cast; only Melanie is allowed to reach histrionic heights of emotion, despite looking as stolid as the mistress of a provincial pony school. Anita (Louise Ford) in particular excels in maintaining a brittle cheerfulness that could only ever deceive Quartermaine, while Henry (Conleth Hill) bears his round stomach before him like an airbag, protection against the emotional car crashes that he invariably attracts. Initially hapless newcomer Derek (Will Keen) provokes classic trouser-splitting, name-forgetting, limb-breaking humour of the Lucky Jim school, but as he settles in and down the comedy shades darker.
This may be the 1960s, but the sexual revolution is too late for these characters, whose permanent tenure in middle age is suggested by Tim Hatley’s design, horsehair not egg chair, and no shagpile in sight. Still, the potential to slide into a padded comfort zone is moderated by moments of real bite and desperation, by the suppressed energy and ambition under these characters’ tweedy suits. A lot of the audience may have come for Mr Bean, but Atkinson’s admission that ‘someone in their 50s being childlike becomes a little sad’ makes this rare foray onto the stage especially poignant; determinedly adult, its subtle charms will raise a smile, but need no laughter track.