Sat 9th May to Sat 16th May
Is there a perfect school, a perfect marriage, a perfect family?
Superficially, this is a light comedy about a group of educated, often eccentric English characters in an academic backwater in the early sixties. But though the jokes are excellent, the piece cuts deep. Simon Gray has never been more been more amusing and more touching than in this thoroughly delightful portrait of a mediocre but lovable English schoolteacher named St. John Quartermaine and his fellow faculty at a small school in Cambridge which teaches English to foreign students.
"Gray's selection of details and exchanges is immaculate: he achieves drama and mystery in mundane lives; the comedy is beautifully stated ... " - The Times
Quartermaine's Terms was written in 1981 and is set some 20 years before that. Yet there's something curiously topical about staging Simon Gray's mordantly ironic play immediately after a General Election that is forcing us to examine what it means to be British and, far more elusively, what it means to be English.
The Englishness portrayed here, in the staffroom of a Cambridge school for teaching foreigners about our language and institutions, is not attractive. We are drawn back into a world of pipes and bike clips, fringed lampshades and wilting plants, black gowns and a big black phone.
The staff are outwardly genial for the most part. They ask about each other's families, but they're not really interested in the answers. Apart, that is, from St John Quartermaine, who doesn't have a family but desperately wants to be accepted into somebody else's. Anybody's, in fact.
He is a sad and lonely man, almost too nice for his own good. For all his pitiful efforts to be charming, he can never quite connect. As would-be novelist Mark Sackling (Sean Glock) points out in a rare moment of perception, "you have an amazing capacity not to let the world impinge upon you".
Keith Railton, shorn of beard and appropriately pink of face under an impressively luxuriant wig, plays Quartermaine with just the right mixture of diffidence and desperation. In a rare moment when he climbs out of his studded leather armchair, he recalls the power and grace of a passing flock of swans from his childhood. The sense of what might have been is almost palpably poignant. But nobody is listening. In fact, the only other person in the room at that point is Melanie Garth, a spinster whose almost manic frustrations are cleverly portrayed by Annie Gay. She's painstakingly copying out a mediaeval recipe - for roast swan, as it happens.
The foreign students, who pay for the services of these English teachers, are routinely stereotyped and sneered at in their absence. So, too, is the only incomer to the staff, an earnest and accident-prone northerner from distant Hull. His name is Derek, or "Dennis" as he is referred to by the domineering figure of Henry Windscape. Windbag would be a more appropriate surname. Matt Sweatman inflates himself impressively, conveying an outward bombast and bonhomie that can all too easily be punctured.
In fact, it's difficult to find a flaw in the performances or, indeed, in the production, from Helen Withers' direction to Karl Stafford's cleverly designed set. Much has changed since the era of black gowns and big black phones. But this play, focusing as it does on a certain kind of insular, emotionally stunted Englishness, is a reminder that some things stay the same.