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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Quartermaine's Terms
BBC 1987 and YouTube    May 2022

Simon Gray's 1981 play is a sad comedy (or perhaps drama with chuckles) about the small failures of small people and the ways their limitations actually protect them from greater pains than they would be able to bear.

This 1987 BBC television production captures the quiet humour and quiet pathos nicely, while also subtly changing the focus from the stage version.

The setting is the faculty common room of a third-rate English-for-foreigners school in Cambridge, run by a couple of elderly men (only one of whom we see) and staffed by failures of various sorts.

There's a failed would-be novelist, a betrayed wife, a woman living in mutual hatred with her invalid mother, a man coping with a deeply disturbed adolescent daughter, a part-timer struggling to make ends meet, and the like.

And at their centre is St John ('Sinjin' the name suggests the failed younger brother of a once aristocratic family) Quartermaine, a man so lost in his own lack-of-thought that it takes tremendous effort to connect to the real world.

The 1981 production was dominated by Edward Fox as Quartermaine, giving a performance of absolute stillness The play became about the unknowable mystery of what (if anything) was going on inside this man and how it managed to shield him from the vicissitudes of life that so buffeted his colleagues.

Edward Fox is at the centre of this production, giving as brilliantly understated a performance as he did onstage, repeatedly inserting a pause between someone else's words or actions and his response, as we watch his consciousness swim painfully up from whatever depths it has been in to reach the surface.

But the mere fact of translation to the screen changes the play. Fox was onstage almost continuously, usually planted in the same armchair. constantly stealing audience attention away from the more active other characters just by doing nothing.

In the television version the camera chooses what we look at, and it is usually whoever the individual moment is about, with Quartermaine offscreen. As a result, this version is much more about the group, with Quartermaine just one among a collection of losers.

Every character does have his or her own story, in almost every case one of being slowly defeated by life, but we are more aware of and concerned with them than we were onstage.

The play covers a period of about eighteen months, and each time we meet them their lives have either changed radically for the worse or continued along a downward path we sensed earlier, and we are left to fill in the gaps.

If I have made this sound too dark, I must repeat that there is a wry comic tone to a lot of it. Vaguely sensing that Quartermaine is impervious to pain, the others blithely make and break dates with him, use him as a babysitter and dump their woes on him, and he bears all with equanimity.

The part-timer is accident-prone and we begin to look forward to discovering what part of his face or body will bear a plaster the next time we see him. And the few students the school manages to attract are the subjects of comic report and anecdote.

(A small misstep of the film version lies in its opening out the action just enough to show us the students wandering the halls and grounds. When we never saw them we could imagine how few there were, but seeing them makes the place seem more prosperous than we'd like to picture it.)

However reduced his domination of the play, Edward Fox still gives a fascinating performance and an object lesson in how less can be more in great acting.

The supporting cast led by John Gielgud as the principal, Eleanor Bron as the mother's daughter and Peter Jeffrey as the daughter's father each take their moments of being centre stage, building rounded and sympathetic characterisations.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Quartermaine's Terms - BBC 1987 - 2022