Under the Blue Sky
Duke of York's Theatre
Under the Blue Sky is a moving triptych about failed love amongst the teaching classes, fondly remembered from its appearance first time around, Upstairs at the Royal Court eight years ago.
On one level, it is an exposé of the social inadequacy displayed by a trio of inept men, each clearly much better at teaching teenagers than expressing their own feelings. It also bleakly looks at wider issues in the society of its time a decade ago, which is already taking on something of a historical perspective.
This play has something in common with its predecessor at the Duke of York's, Polly Stenham's That Face, having started life in the much smaller Royal Court Upstairs space. There, it was able to achieve a much greater degree of intimacy, with the action taking place at either end of a long traverse. It had a strong cast then, featuring Sheila Hancock, Justin Salinger and Stanley Townsend, directed by Rufus Norris with whom playwright David Eldridge later bought Festen to the stage with such success.
For its West End transfer, the producers have given director Anna Mackmin a neon-edged, sliding set courtesy of Lez Brotherston; and a cast led by screen stars Catherine Tate (of The .... Show and Doctor Who fame) and Francesca Annis, clearly selected to draw in the widest possible audience.
The three, loosely connected stories begin in the East End kitchen of Chris O'Dowd's Irish teacher Nick, within a bomb blast's echo of Canary Wharf. He has invited his tiny, blonde colleague Helen (Lisa Dillon) to dinner to make an announcement that she immediately misinterprets as amorous. In fact, much to her disgust, he explains that he is selling out and moving from their Leytonstone comprehensive to an Essex public school.
After a tentative start, the actors do a good job of portraying the pain that they both feel when confronted with a love that one of them will not admit and the other can no longer keep within bounds.
The second scene has a very different tone on this occasion, played possibly too much for laughs between Miss Tate's outrageous slut Michelle, who, after rejection by Irish Nick throws herself into bed with Graham. Dominic Rowan plays the last male teacher in the school whom she has not bedded, a geek who gets his kicks from ordering the cadet corps around. In fact, this deeply unhappy and unpleasant couple fully deserve each other.
The final pairing makes the play. They are Anne, played by Miss Annis, a teacher in Devon who must be close to retirement and Nigel Lindsay's Robert, twenty years his former colleague's junior but quietly in thrall to her. This pair enjoy regular, sexless holidays together constantly suppressing the passion that each feels for the other.
In around half an hour, as well as updating the stories of their four colleagues, they also come to self-knowledge after Anne tries to break off the cycle of holidays by travelling with her 98-year-old Auntie May to the battlefields of the First World War. Eventually, diffidence finally thrown off forever, this couple offer us all hope for the future in a beautifully-silhouetted dénouement.
Under the Blue Sky might be David Eldridge's most enjoyable play to date and is well worth a second look. With this cast, of whom the final pairing made by far the biggest impression, there is clearly optimism that it is set for a reasonable West End run. However, the producers may well discover that, however good the play is, its quiet, contemplative nature is not generally what is required to draw in big audiences these days.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher