Sometime back in the mirky depths of time, I spent more than a decade as a teacher. So a nostalgic shiver ran down my spine when this play about 6 teachers began, even though the focus of it is not the staff room, or even the classroom, but the bedroom.
'Under The Blue Sky' is divided into 3 short, 30 minute scenes, each with a different male-female pairing. The three scenes are tenuously strung together with a gossamer thread based on the school where one of the characters goes to teach. In other respects, the three scenes don't have that much in common with each other and could easily have been written as three different plays.
In the first scene, Nick has invited Helen round to his stylish flat to discuss their relationship and tell her about his career plans. Unfortunately, Helen doesn't take the news too well, and finds herself losing control. In the second scene, we discover Graham and Michelle in Graham's bedroom after a Chinese meal and copious quantities of alcohol. Things seem to be heading in a steamy direction, but the sexually inexperienced Graham also has difficulty in keeping control.
The final scene is quite different. Anne and Robert have been friends for some time, sharing holidays though never the same bed. But even in what seems a stable and practical friendship, there's much more bubbling under the surface.
Written in 1999, 'Under The Blue Sky' had a first airing at the Royal Court Theatre in 2000, and I wonder just what made it attractive to revive at this point in time. It strikes me as being more appropriate for radio than a stage play, even if there are some elements of visual humour that work very well.
'Under The Blue Sky' has numerous references to war - the play even begins with a massive explosion apparently from a bomb planted in Canary Wharf by the IRA (the first scene is set in 1996). The connection between war and the sexual desires of teachers seems to be a very tenuous link. It's true that the characters in the first two scenes are indeed 'at war', or at least locked in a kind of emotional combat. But other than that, I'm afraid that the war references left me baffled.
Fans of Catherine Tate will relish the prospect of seeing her live on stage rather than via the screen in the corner of their lounge. And Ms Tate doesn't disappoint as Michelle, a sexually-demanding and adventurous maths teacher who has been unceremoniously dumped by Nick and seeks sexual solace in the form of Graham, the least desirable male teacher on the staff. Tate is especially nasty and begins to humiliate Graham, but the tables are turned when he produces the 'trump card' revealing her numerous sexual encounters with various other members of the staff and students.
Though Catherine Tate stands out because her character is louder and more up-front than the others, the rest of the cast all produce fine performances. In particular, I really enjoyed Lisa Dillon's mousey Helen whose intense desire for Nick is overwhelming and becomes ever more desperate as alcohol begins to remove her inhibitions.
Writer David Aldridge seems to be telling us that there is something different about teachers - and the programme notes support this with background about public service and questions such as 'who becomes a teacher?' But, the play explains very little about the nature of teaching, why teachers may or may not be different to other people, and why they have difficulties with their personal relationships.
Although I see why Aldridge wanted to end on something of a happier and more hopeful note, the final scene leaves us with a sentimental ending that in many ways negates what went before. Nevertheless, Aldridge's writing is sharp and cleverly constructed and there are lots of genuinely comic lines that in themselves make the show worthwhile. As an ex-teacher, I also identified with the kind of relationships portrayed, the general tone of the script, the characters and their underlying dependence on alcohol as a kind of stress-release mechanism. I just wish I understood more about the main underlying theme. Whatever it really was, I'm afraid it was too well-camouflaged for me.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Adolescent schoolboy comedy." DEBORAH ORR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Banal and workmanlike script...This is an awesomely middlebrow, schematic and undemanding piece of work." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Cleverly structured play...Anna Mackmim's production doesn't yet quite negotiate the balance between pain and comedy...quietly thoughtful evening." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Anna Mackmin directs this superb tripartite play with satisfying depth and psychological detail, while Lez Brotherston supplies stylish designs." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Sometimes ugly and (less deliberately) repetitive, is well enough observed and written...Anna Mackmin's cast is exceptionally strong ."
Production photos by Johan Persson