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Quartermaine’s Terms

by on 19 July 2021

English as another language

Quartermaine’s Terms

by Simon Gray

Richmond Shakespeare Society, Mary Wallace Theatre, until 24 July

Review by Matthew Grierson

As St John Quartermaine (Luke Daxon) enters the common room of Cull–Loomis Academy, Cambridge, he touches various props and pieces of furniture as though to affirm their reality. Were I allowed, I may have done likewise, given that it’s so long since I’ve been in an actual theatre and I wanted to be sure what I was seeing was directly in front of me and not just a digital projection.

But the silent conceit sets up effectively the play’s contrast between words and world, later touched on when one of Quartermaine’s fellow English language teachers refers to the dispute between nominalists and realists in Medieval philosophy. The premise allows director Rodney Figaro and his cast to mine a rich seam of misunderstanding in what proves to be a farce of the mind – or perhaps the mouth, given that it is not bodies but words that are forever missing their mark.

The production does, admittedly, take a little while to get going, with the opening exchange between Quartermaine and Anita Manchip (Charlotte Horobin) for instance seeming a little stilted and wordy, as though they, like us, are only just getting used to small talk once again. Quartermaine’s general cluelessness means his colleagues tend to info-dump their private lives on him, which brings us up to speed without making them seem particularly real, at least at first. This is coupled with characterisations that are, initially, a little broad, be they absent-minded professor or wronged wife, and subsequently a depressive writer, angry northerner and bluff windbag, among others. They are the English equivalents of the very stereotypes the faculty harbours about their international students.

The script’s strength, then, and the cast’s, is in playing off these expectations, and indeed the nominative determinism that could be expected. Anita has every reason to have a man chip on her shoulder, for instance, given that her male colleagues are preoccupied with talking about her looks or marriage, but the development of her character allows Horobin the chance to add layers of nuance. Similarly, principal Eddie Loomis is more an avuncular rather than looming figure; I have not been used to seeing Jim Trimmer so subdued, but the choice to pitch his performance this way is entirely appropriate, and makes for an affecting dénouement.

Meanwhile, would-be novelist Mark Sackling (Matt Dennis) is introduced as a bit of a sad sack, but we watch him come to terms with his literary ambition – and neither does he suffer the fate his name would suggest. I’m not sure Dennis’s diction is quite on point for Cambridge in the 1960s, though, especially when the social distinctions into which accent plays are necessary to our reading of enthusiastic incomer Derek Meadle (Jacob Taylor).

As the hapless northerner, Taylor is given plenty of good business with bandages and breakages and this builds up the character’s sense of frustration until he eventually snaps about the unfair terms on which he has been hired. The academic precariat not merely a modern phenomenon, then. By broaching the issue of class, Meadle also voices a theme that hangs over the play, and one which all the emollient Englishmen and women of the faculty have studiously avoided mentioning. As they would.

The strongest of the cast are the pairing of Fiona Smith’s Melanie Garth and Daniel Wain’s Henry Windscape. For all her insistence on avoiding euphemism, Smith’s Garth is an impressive study in repression, whether it comes to the matter of her ailing mother or her unrequited love for her middle-aged colleague. Meanwhile, red-faced Wain could easily be as blustery as the name Windscape suggests, but makes the character the most sympathetic of all Cull–Loomis’s eccentric faculty, with a haunted air behind his cheery good manner. I particularly appreciated his use of the play’s common device to have characters’ dialogue tail off, which he serves especially well in a holiday anecdote he tells three times without getting to the pay-off. This could easily have been lost or over-egged, but Wain pitches it somewhere between comedy and poignancy to fine effect.

Indeed, like a Greek tragedy, so much of the key action of this play has already taken place by the time we hear about it. There is a lot of talk about partners and parents we never meet, and constant tension between what the characters tell and show us about their loved, or unloved, ones. For instance, when Garth enters all in black, almost the literal shadow that her mother has cast over her, we know more about what has happened than from her polite, airy replies to her colleagues’ enquiries. Then there is Loomis’s oft-mentioned partner and fellow principal, Thomas, whom he always seems to be missing – sometimes in profound ways – a sort of minor Godot. The characters are putting on as much a performance of Englishness with each other as they are when they instruct the academy’s fictive students in the language and British institutions.

This leaves us with St John Quartermaine himself, the Peter Principle in person. He doesn’t fall into any of the natural pairs that the rest of the cast do, and experiences little of the unseen drama that surrounds the others. Indeed, in the scene closest to conventional farce in the play, he finds himself accepting a succession of invitations that he will be unable to honour, as though he can only live through others. He is a man onstage alone at the start and the end of the show, and – but for a missed trick of direction – would be at either side of the interval as well, as the dialogue indicates. It’s a difficult role to essay, then, so lucky Luke Daxon finds a precision in the vagueness, bringing life to what might otherwise be an abstract portrait of tweedy English chauvinism for whom the clock is ticking.

On that note, Figaro’s flats feature a working clock that runs to the actual time rather than that of each scene – characters are forever fretting about being late to work or their colleagues skiving off before five – and once I had noticed this it felt like something of an oversight, given the attention to detail on the rest of the set. However, time never seemed to drag, especially in a play with so little obvious onstage action. In fact, rather like those halcyon days of my own education, the terms seemed fairly to fly by. A sure sign of an engaging evening.

Matthew Grierson
July 2021

Photography © Jessica Warrior

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