Monday, 16 July 2018

Theatre review: Under the Blue Sky

AMATEUR PRODUCTION DISCLAIMER: As usual, I like to point out that drama school presentations are officially classified as amateur productions; and as usual, I'm going to ignore that in the way I review this, as everyone involved could be professional very soon.

And so to one of my occasional trips to LAMDA's public performances, where I try to spot stars of the future and (spoiler alert!) fail miserably. David Eldridge's Under the Blue Sky premiered in 2000, and I last saw it when it was revived in the West End ten years ago, but there are moments when you can see the through-line in Eldridge's writing with his most recent hit, Beginning. A triptych of loosely connected scenes all involving teachers at an Essex public school, Under the Blue Sky opens with Nick (Barney Fishwick,) who works at a rough East London school, inviting his best friend and colleague Helen (Helen Reuben) for a meal to tell her he's planning to take a job at the private school. For the idealistic Helen this is a blow as she believes they can do the most good where they are, but her anger is really down to the fact that she was hoping the dinner was about something else - she's been not-so-secretly in love with Nick for years, and thought he was going to confess he feels the same.

We never see this pair after the opening scene but their story affects a lot of what happens about a year later to Michelle (Sophie Bentick,) a teacher at the public school who's just ended a relationship with Nick.

In an attempt at revenge, she's gone home with awkward, geeky Graham (Joseph Whitworth) for what turns out to be a disastrously embarrassing night that quickly turns ugly. With the damaged Michelle taking out her anger by belittling him, audience sympathy easily goes to Graham, but he too has a much darker side to reveal. Eldridge paints teaching as a very insular profession, the options for a social and romantic life limited to the staff room (and the occasional student, in Michelle's case,) and the cast do well with a structure that sets the scenes up like sitcoms, but despite having some good gags turns things much darker very quickly. Reuben is particularly watchable as Helen, whose obsessive nature Nick takes advantage of.

This has tragic consequences, as we learn in the final third, but at least it contributes to Anne (Eliot Salt) and Robert (Sam Hill) taking a step that ends the play on its most optimistic note. With a cast pool of drama students you're inevitably going to have a lot of actors playing much older, and though I can understand Penny Cherns' production not wanting to use ageing makeup on Salt, I did think something could have been done to suggest that, after the follies of the younger characters, here were some older teachers getting it right, in their own way. (The script mentions Anne's nearly 20 years older than Robert, but I don't think you could have inferred their ages from the production: If I recall the West End production correctly, he's in his mid-40s and she's in her early 60s, which also makes a bit more sense of her having an aunt who's pushing 100.) Still, this final scene remains beautifully moving, and the production of one of Eldridge's best plays hits the right notes.

Under the Blue Sky by David Eldridge is booking in repertory until the 18th of July at LAMDA's Carne Studio.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

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