Opening in the West End in time to coincide with the start of the school holidays, David Eldridge‘s play is about six teachers who, in various ways, are no more emotionally literate than their charges.
The play was first staged at the Royal Court Upstairs in 2000 and is divided into three sections each concerning one particular pairing and their various psycho-sexual hang-ups.
The casting coup here is Catherine Tate, still fresh from winning over the majority of sceptics as Donna in Doctor Who. She appears in the second segment of the play, but, before that, the audience was introduced to a different couple, Helen and Nicholas (played by Lisa Dillon and The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd, the latter rather miscast). They are friends and colleagues at a London comp, though he has just applied for a position at an independent school in Essex. Helen is upset that he is contemplating leaving, both his state school job, and her, behind. It quickly becomes clear that she carries quite a torch for him (the flames having been fuelled considerably when they drunkenly slept together three years before).
At first – as Nicholas churns out a familiar ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ spiel – our sympathies lie with Helen. He seems content to keep her hanging around as a ‘best friend’ but is unwilling to take their relationship further; he enjoys the adoration but is not sure that he ‘is capable of loving her.’ However Eldridge twists things around by having Helen do something so incredibly rash and extreme that it rather undermines the carefully created sense of emotional exposure that has gone before.
The second sequence, the one featuring Tate, also sees Eldridge take a familiar, near-sitcom set up, a drink fuelled and unwise encounter between two colleagues, and subvert it. Tate plays Michelle, a sexually aggressive teacher with a face framed by wild, red hair and breasts barely contained within an unflattering brown jersey dress. It is an initially caricatured role, but the writing and the performance work in tandem to turn it into something more. Having confessed to sleeping with half the common room, Tate’s Michelle slowly unfurls before us, into a pathetic, self loathing figure. She is little better than Dominic Rowan’s Graham, a sexually inexperienced man, whose lust is comic at first, but increasingly unsettling. As he would later cement with his stage adaptation of Festen, Eldridge is adept at injecting unease and tension into a situation. The audience has no idea where this union will head, how far things will go. It is compelling as a car-crash, hard to watch, but impossible not to.
If the pairing of Michelle and Graham was the most warped of the evening, that of Annie and Robert (played by Francesca Annis and Nigel Lindsay) was the warmest. The Tate/Rowan section began with the couple indulging in a little role play, with her playing the field nurse to his wounded solider. This game of theirs is echoed in the final section when the luminous Annis recounts the story of her aunt’s brief, youthful affair with a young man who met his end on a Belgian battle field. This story has made her reflect on her own relationship with Robert. They spend most of the school holidays together and are clearly close, clearly share a bond beyond friendship, but the age difference (she is somewhat older) has always made her hang back. But now, sitting with him in a summer-warmed garden, she reconsiders and, after wallowing in bitterness for two thirds of its lenght, the play ends on a note of hope and optimism.
This last segment is also the most satisfying from a performance point of view. Lindsay and Annis have a fresh, plausible chemistry. As the sluttish Michelle however, Catherine Tate overplays things at time and when she raises her voice, when she uses a certain vocal tone, it is impossible not to think of some of her television creations, engrained as they are on the collective conscious. But in her quieter moments she is stronger, subtly suggesting an underlying damage.
Under The Blue Sky is a compact thing, 90 minutes all in, and Anna Mackim’s production is taut and well paced, though it struggles to fill the West End space at times. Eldridge’s play feels, especially in the earlier sequences, very much like the work of a young man it feels a bit forced and obvious in places, with the linking of the three stories feeling like a narrative device rather than something organic but, as the play progresses towards its tender, hopeful conclusion, there is a sense of him blossoming, both in confidence and in ability, something he would go on to confirm with later work.