Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms sits on a knife-edge between nuanced insight and broad comedy but Harry Burton’s production, now on a short tour, plunges too often into the abyss of BBC sitcom territory. The calamities and crises of ordinary life, from ripped trousers to torn marriages, are skated over in the interests of cheap laughs.
Gray sets huge life-changing events against the minutiae of everyday living. An accident-prone character squirms in order to avoid the indignity of showing his exposed underpants, while the heartbreaking back-story of a colleague, who has had three abortions to please her philandering husband despite desperately wanting children, is tossed off without consequence. There’s nothing that couldn’t be pitched at a much more realistic level but, for too much of the time, the production resembles Chekov performed in a Punch and Judy booth.
Set in Cambridge at a time before East Anglia bulged with immigrants, a struggling olde-worlde English-language school in the 1960s is a haven for “foreigners”, present only through some rather dodgy offstage sound effects. What we see is the behind the scenes tribulations of the teachers, all moving in different directions and rarely connecting as they deal with all too recognisable life matters, such as infidelity, incompatibility and lack of personal fulfilment.
At the centre of the piece is Nathaniel Parker’s dithering and unworldly St John Quartermaine, tied to his armchair as if by umbilical cord, reaching out for contact but only able to achieve social engagement when it suits the needs of others. Sympatico though he is, Parker’s performance only gives us glimpses of the deep pathos that made Edward Fox so memorable in the play’s original production.
Some of the tragedies are unseen but no less vivid: the fretting and dwindling away of Thomas, the other half of the elderly male couple who run the school, the geriatric mother locked in combat with a spinsterish daughter and, most affecting of all, the teenage girl unable to cope with the pressures of premature academic achievement. These stories are acted out through the consciousness of the onstage characters they affect most acutely.
The cast are punchy and pacy but this is an express train that needs the brake applying to give us the time to feel for the characters. Fortunately, director Burton pulls the emergency cord in time for the poignant final scene and we are left with a lingering after-taste, as courageous ordinary people pick their way through the wreckage of their lives.
It’s hard to believe that Gray’s play was first produced as recently as 1981, it so resembles works of a much earlier era. Already old-fashioned when it was written, it is tinged with what would now be termed racism and sexism, but it’s also immaculate of construction and sentiment. The fact that it survives the often heavy-handed approach of the production points also to its resilience.