Rowan Atkinson casts off Mr Bean and plays it straight

Critics acclaim star's poignant performance on return to West End stage

LAST UPDATED AT 11:22 ON Wed 30 Jan 2013

FEARS that Rowan Atkinson might bring "too much Mr Bean" to his role as an eccentric English teacher in the West End play Quartermaine's Terms have been swept aside by the comedian's "superb" performance. 

The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer says he was bracing for an overabundance of "facial tics and funny voices". Instead, Atkinson's measured performance as Quartermaine, a teacher at a language school for foreigners in Cambridge in the early Sixties, completely won him over. 

"Atkinson makes the character's passive singularity continually compelling, hinting at the loneliness of his life in a rented bedsit and movingly suggesting someone who in both his career and his personal relationships is incapable of biting life to the core," writes Spencer.

The play, first staged in 1981, is playwright Simon Gray's "finest work" and one of the few English plays comparable to Chekhov, adds Spencer. Quartermaine, a kindly, but rather hopeless teacher, is its emotional centrepoint.

The Guardian's Michael Billington says Atkinson's first performance in a straight play in 25 years reminds audiences that he is "a highly capable actor". Although the star of Blackadder is clearly the big box office draw, Richard Eyre's "immaculate production" makes sure he doesn't "overbalance" the action on stage.

The play's essential themes are loneliness and isolation and Atkinson embodies them perfectly, writes Billington. As Quartermaine he "seems to inhabit his own private world that exists at a tangent to reality". He doesn't "efface" memories of Edward Fox who played the teacher in an acclaimed 1987 BBC television production, but he "suggests a man whose very niceness is inherently tragic".

Writing in the Daily Express, Simon Edge says it takes a "couple of seconds" to adjust to the idea you're not looking at Mr Bean on stage, but then Atkinson's performance draws the audience in completely. Edge suggests that the distance between Bean and Quartermaine is not as great as it might seem at first because both characters are, at heart, deeply poignant. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.