Goodbye, Mr Bean! Richard Eyre's masterful revival of Simon Gray's 1981 staff room comedy is full of silly walks and pratfalls, but its star, Rowan Atkinson, isn't doing any of them. As gentle incompetent St John Quartermaine, he spends most of this two-and-a-half hour play sitting still in a brown leather armchair, staring into space, gently stroking his knee – while his colleagues crack up around him.
Die hard fans may think Atkinson's beetlebrows – surely the funniest facial hair on the planet – are criminally underemployed. Quartermaine's dialogue is devoid of the glittering sarcasm that would have made, say, Blackadder a brilliant, if painful, English teacher.
But this is a sacrifice on the altar of fine acting. Atkinson is quietly excellent: there's no arsing around with a keyboard here, just serious, subtle acting and plenty of it. Quartermaine is no good in the classroom and isolated in the staff room: on the rare occasion he does enter into his colleagues' manic chatter, it's with a kindly banality, a befuddled pause, or – on one poignant occasion – a childhood memory of swans 'beating the air' with their wings.
This is impresario Michael Codron's final show before he retires, and it's a good old-fashioned West End hit. The supporting cast get to have most of the fun. Rising stars Louise Ford and Will Keen are immaculate as a gruellingly-married young teacher and an accident-prone northerner. Conleth Hill is moving as Quartermaine's kindest colleague, whose professionalism forces him towards cruelty.
So it's a shame that Gray's play, despite the quality production, remains a B+. A vital spark of genius – and of relish for life – is missing from the drama and from its vague, lonely central character. The important stuff – suicide, matricide, farcial encounters with the local plods – happens offstage and the pieces are swiftly swept under the staff room carpet. It's a poignant, funny, meticulous portrait of slightly disappointed English lives – but nothing more than that. Caroline Mcginn