Under the Blue Sky

David Eldridge

Tower Theatre Company

Technis Theatre

From 14 March 2017 to 18 March 2017

Review by Claire Seymour

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David’s Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky essentially explores the meaning of "happiness". In three one-act two-handers, three pairs of teachers honestly and openly discuss their desires and dreams.

Essex and the teaching profession are the ostensible links between the parts of the triptych, but, despite a few references to the heinousness of those who abandon state schools for the independent sector and the problems of "crowd-control" and trying to teach English Literature to those for whom English is not a native language, the "educational context" is largely irrelevant.

Instead, Eldridge offers a truthful depiction of the full spectrum of "love"—from unrequited devotion to violent subordination, from fondness to fervent adoration.

A drunken one-night stand has brought Nick and Helen together, but they have very different hopes and ambitions. Michelle, a vulgar, straight-talking mathematics teacher, plans a night of alcohol-fuelled passion with a shy colleague to gain retribution against another member of staff who has used and discarded her. Finally, Robert and Anne, who have holidayed together for many a year, express their tentative dreams of a future together.

Director Lynn Facey and Tower Theatre’s design team (sets: Phillip Ley, lighting: Nick Insley, and sound: Rob Ellis) slickly represent the three settings which span a chronology from February 1996, through May 1997, to August 1998, and which move from the kitchen, to the bedroom, to decked patio. Despite the spotlight focus on particular moments and places, a sense of the outside world is conveyed through the sounds of a storm and a police siren and the spanning of a car headlight across a dark bedroom accompanied by the expectant slamming of a car door.

In a coral-pink kitchen, Nick (Nick Edwards) completes the crossword and cooks supper for fellow teacher Helen (Clare Gaba). The red wine flows copiously and, before dinner is served, his desire to "move on", professionally and personally, has been divulged to the needy Helen.

It’s hard to tell whether the banality of the script—“what are us all about?”, “why can’t we say what we feel?”, “are you in love with me?”, “why are you doing this?”—is a result of Nick’s and Helen’s insubstantiality or Eldridge’s poverty of imagination. Nick and Helen seem little more than teenagers themselves: certainly, the adolescents I teach have much more emotional maturity than this flimsy couple who bemoan, “if you really loved me you wouldn’t hurt me like this.”

Helen, abandoned and betrayed by Nick’s mundane ambition, grabs a knife and hints at a violent passion which could erupt with tragic consequences; but Gaba’s vocal range is limited and she speaks of bathetic and hyperbolic emotions in the same whining whisper. There is little emotional connection between the pair: indeed, it’s not clear why anyone would be attracted to commitment-phobe Nick’s unappealing self-centeredness. Edwards’s career-focused Nick—insipidity personified—certainly offers no redeeming features.

Katie Smith is more absorbing as the drunken maths teacher Michelle who has determined upon sexual revenge with the staffroom’s least likely Lothario, history teacher Graham (Paul Robison). Vulgar and straight-talking, Michelle wields a cigarette as if it is a weapon, but from the start Smith reveals the vulnerability beneath Katie’s cruel baiting. She may abhor and despise Graham, who "pretends" to be a real man; but, he counters, she teaches numbers—numb, she has no "soul". When an account of Michelle’s sexual progress through the staff roll turns to more troubling and sinister revelations, we feel real discomfort and disquiet.

It is not until Eldridge’s third vignette, however, that real empathy between and with the characters develops. And, this is in no small part owing to the terrific characterisation of Anne (Lily Ann Green), an elderly teacher, and Robert (Leon Chambers), a slightly younger former colleague. Robert has admired Anne for years, but their Platonic friendship is now disturbed by deeper, so far suppressed feelings which are released by Anne’s account of her Auntie May’s unconsummated love affair with a soldier who died on the fields of Flanders.

Chambers portrays Robert as a sincere but charmingly gauche Essex-bloke; Green has a twinkle in her eye and a hint of inner strength and passion worthy of Judi Dench. Their inhibitions released by music and dancing, Anne and Robert gaze up at the blue sky and dare to dream of happiness. It’s heart-warming. How often does "modern" theatre leave an audience with a prevailing feeling of comforting optimism?

The shadow of Miss Jean Brodie falls heavily over Eldridge’s play—and Spark had much more to say about "teaching and learning" before the phrase was strangled by pedagogy and OFSTED. But Eldridge’s final act offers consoling emotional truths.