It is a face that millions around the world have learned to love. Even for the doubters, that gormless expression was a highlight of the Olympic ceremony when Rowan Atkinson played a pianist with the least demanding job in the world.
The job of Atkinson’s latest character — in the comedy actor’s first straight play in 25 years — requires just as little effort. St John Quartermaine teaches English to foreign students at a Cambridge college in the early 1960s. Or he would do if he bothered to leave the armchair in the cosy staff-room where the late Simon Gray’s 1981 play is set.
Almost nothing happens in this gripping play. 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. True, at one point the hard-working new tutor Derek (Will Keen) explodes with resentment at being employed as a part-timer. But the drama passes and it seems Quartermaine can return to his sleepy ways.
Richard Eyre’s production flows at the lazy pace of the Cam, the river that figures in one of Quartermaine’s incomplete reminiscences. Atkinson captures the loneliness of a gentle man whose only use is to lend a sympathetic ear. It is a perfectly good performance but you do not get the sense of fear when Quartermaine’s comfort zone is threatened. Or that Atkinson has the mettle for roles with more demanding jobs. (www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk)