“Quartermaine’s Terms”, currently on tour in the UK with a production directed by Harry Burton and starring Nathaniel Parker in the title role, takes place over a period of two years in the 1960s in the staffroom at a Cambridge English language school. It deals with the interrelationship between seven teachers at the school and, in particular, that between St John Quartermaine and the others. The dominant theme is loneliness and during the course of the play all of the characters experience the trauma of being or feeling alone. Mark’s wife leaves him; Derek, from Hull, finds Cambridge initially unwelcoming; Eddie is ultimately bereaved by the loss of a partner; Anita’s husband is a philanderer; Henry is trapped in a dysfunctional nuclear family and Melanie is similarly trapped caring for a Mother who she despises. Quartermaine is a painfully lonely bachelor with seemingly no friends or hinterland other than his colleagues at the school.

The events in the lives of the teachers take place off stage and involve characters who do not appear. Quartermaine’s Terms is a quintessentially British play and Simon Gray pokes gentle fun at the British penchant for “muddling through” and “not complaining” – coupled with a tendency not to take firm action when necessary. Quartermaine is clearly an incompetent teacher but Eddie and his partner Thomas (who we do not see) avoid the need to get rid of him out of kindness and fear of embarrassment. The verbal style is characteristically British with form and euphemism dominant and with real issues constantly being ducked out of politeness. When clouded signals are offered (especially signals that suggest a character needs help) they are so obscure that it is possible for others to ignore them – and they usually do. Whilst the play is at times highly comical it has a very serious theme and the struggles of each character with their own type of loneliness are moving and sad. Above all Quartermaine himself is an increasingly pathetic figure lost in his own confused thoughts – and ultimately deserted. His future as the play closes is poignantly bleak.

Nathaniel Parker gives a fine performance as Quartermaine conveying, often silently and with glance and gesture, the pain of being alone. For me the other highlight from a very strong cast was Rosanna Lavelle’s subtle portrayal of Anita – the young woman stuck with a cad but unwilling to reveal openly her inner distress. Harry Burton’s direction is sensitive and controlled – the play never breaks into farce and the story, as it unravels, never lacks credibility.

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