Theatregoers at our sell-out Whatsonstage.com Outing to the West End premiere of Under the Blue Sky at the Duke of York’s theatre last Thursday (21 August 2008) were treated to an exclusive post-show discussion with all six of the plays stellar cast – Francesca Annis, Catherine Tate, Lisa Dillon, Chris O\'Dowd, Dominic Rowan and Nigel Lindsay - as well as award-winning author David Eldridge and director Anna Mackmin.

Under the Blue Sky was first seen at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in September 2000 in a production directed by Rufus Norris. This new production is directed by Anna Mackmin, who directed Orlando Bloom in a revival of another Royal Court play, David Storey’s In Celebration, at the Duke of York’s last summer.

Portraying three couples in three separate acts, Under the Blue Sky is a delicate yet truthful depiction of various degrees of romantic love - from fondness and affection through to the headier extremes of a drunken romp. Uncertainties, misunderstanding and the unsaid lead to unexpected results for these couples, all teachers, who seem incapable of learning from their mistakes and destined never to say the right thing.

In the first act, O’Dowd and Dillon are Nick and Helen; in the second, Tate and Rowan are Michelle and Graham; and in the third, Annis and Lindsay, are Anne and Robert.

Author David Eldridge’s other plays include Market Boy, Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness, M.A.D., Serving It Up, Summer Begins, A Week with Tony, the multi award-winning stage adaptation of Festen, and new versions of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and John Gabriel Borkman. Under the Blue Sky continues at the Duke of York’s until 20 September 2008.

Thursday night’s discussion took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …


On writing the play

David Eldridge: The play came from two things actually. Firstly, I really wanted to write a play about teachers because, certainly in the mid-Nineties, I hadn’t really seen anything in the theatre or on TV that portrayed the people I knew. I am mates with quite a lot of teachers, so I know them from outside of the classroom setting. I had seen teachers portrayed either as these slightly reactionary types, or else these faux-idealistic, campaigning, left-wing types. None of my mates were like that, they were real people. The other thing was that I’ve always been enchanted by the theme of unrequited love. One of my favourite novels is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Lots of stuff like that appeals to me. When I started to think about this play, I wasn’t very settled down in my life and I’d been both Nick and Helen (played by O’Dowd and Dillon in the play) at different points, so there was a strong personal driver to write the play there as well…

It was written in 1999, which was a moment of relative world peace. It was just before the beginning of the new millennium so all of this war imagery that’s in the play, like a battle of the sexes if you like, felt very retrospective in the writing then. But now, for me, when I hear “The Last Post” in the final act, it always makes me think about the coffins coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Audiences always make up their own minds about plays, but that’s what I think about now.

On the play’s West End premiere

David Eldridge: When I wrote the play, I did realise that I had done something different. I didn’t know whether people would like it or not or whether it was any good or not, but looking back there was definitely a recognition that it was a different sort of play. I think that the Royal Court theatre picked up on that. Within theatre, some people like to feel really comfortable within small subsidised theatres and you can feel really comfortable about earning your really regular audience and that is great. I have loved working in those theatres. But I also love being in the West End - I loved being in the West End with Festen -because you get punters, people who just buy a ticket and they don’t really know what they’re coming to see. That’s the thing that I find really exciting about the West End. Sometimes the theatre world can feel like quite a small place but it never does in the West End because people just come from everywhere and anywhere to see the work.

Francesca Annis: It is to (producer) Sonia Friedman’s credit that she just gets hold of plays and then brings them into the West End and that is a real risk.

Anna Mackmin: Also, Lisa Makin, who was head of casting for 20-odd years at the Royal Court and left last year to become the creative producer for Sonia Friedman, was very influential in bringing this production as well as That Face and indeed In Celebration, which I did last year with her as well, to the West End. Lisa is a real force for good. It’s a fantastic thing to see a casting director move into production, particularly someone who has been absolutely at the heart of the Royal Court for such a long time, with so many extraordinary writers. Watch this space, I would say.

On why the job offer was appealing

Dominic Rowan: My father was a teacher and so was my sister. I remember seeing them slumped over marking. He didn’t teach me, but he taught my sisters and that was a bit tricky. They would just rebel against him and I think that was difficult. He taught PE and also some of the so-called lower ability kids and made sure they could read and write and do that. I did end up doing a lot of sport, wondering why I was there on a February morning, freezing cold. Teachers were important in my background, and particularly, as is often the case with people from arts backgrounds, you find that one teacher has been particularly important and has made a real difference. I had an English teacher who put extra time in and did extra classes and introduced me to stuff and opened up the world for me. That was an extraordinarily important figure in my life.

O’Dowd: I’ve never played a character before that was wanted! That was generally something that was attractive for me. I’m fed up with going home crying, so I thought it would be interesting to see what it would be like to be wanted. I think I deal with it as well as he (Nick) does, which is, not very well. I wish David could write all of my roles. It’s great to be wanted. That was a huge deal actually, this kind of very torturous but very small relationship was very appealing to explore.

Francesca Annis: What I found particularly attractive about the play was the fact that, as a teacher my character (Anne) is used to having a certain amount of control, and certainly at the beginning of our scene she’s in control of herself and a little bit bossy and assertive with Robert. Gradually, of course, the cracks start to appear and a complete vulnerability appears. A very private person starts to come through. They have been on a journey right through this and they start at one place and then she very much ends her own personal journey somewhere else.

Nigel Lindsay: I did it specifically to do the dance (in the final scene with Annis). No, not really. Dare I say that I think David is a romantic, and I was drawn to it by the love story between Anne and Robert. I thought it was really moving when I read it the first time and it still gets me now.

Annis: And Auntie May. I love Auntie May.

Lindsay: Sod Auntie May. She’s getting in the way.

Lisa Dillon: My character has a tragic time, eight times a week actually. I find the emotional outpouring the hardest. You are having to find that every day, and getting to that deranged kind of emotional place is like nought to 69 in 30 minutes. That was the real challenge I was drawn to. Helen tries desperately to hold her cards quite close to her chest, and then there those last moments where she just becomes this mess … I wanted to explore that.

Catherine Tate: I think it’s a wonderful play and I was delighted at the thought that I could be part of it. It’s a very different character to everything I’ve done before and I really like the shift in power in our scene. I think it’s very exciting to play that. Suddenly the worm turns; sorry, Dominic, I didn’t mean to call you a worm. It’s just a great journey to go on.

On reviving a play by a living playwright

Anna Mackmin: I don’t want to embarrass David, but this is an important play by an important writer. And I think it’s unique and rather marvellous that, particularly in the current credit crunch, people are taking a risk on young writers. We don’t have a future if we don’t invest in the Stoppard or the Pinter of tomorrow. I really passionately believe that. I primarily think of myself as a new writing director, so it’s an honour to be asked to direct this play…

Ultimately, as a director, the sign of a great play is a play for actors; a play that actors want to be in because they can get their teeth into it. It’s unfortunate but it is a rare moment in the West End when somebody is taking a risk like that and nurturing the future in that way. I think it’s really important and honour is not too big of a word for it. I do feel really, really honoured to have been part of it.

Eldridge: One of the great pleasures of being a playwright is the gift of collaboration. What’s marvellous about seeing the play done again, and not just seeing it done again, but being actively involved in a production eight years on from the original is amazing. It is the experience of coming at the play from a different angle. You learn so much about the play and also as the writer this time, I felt like I had to have a slightly different attitude to it, partly in one sense because I’m a different person now than I was at the time when I wrote it. Also, I think that it’s really hard to remember what it was I imagined when I was just on my own in a room ten years ago. I was always quite worried in rehearsals that I might come out with things that are just memories of things I have seen before. I felt I was most involved in the second half of rehearsals and previews with this production...

I think that this is a wonderful revival. What I absolutely love about this production, one of the things that’s fascinating about it for me, is that, being in the privileged position of being one of the few living writers that gets to be involved in a revival of their play, is seeing how much of the personality of the director is in the production. I know I’ve said this to Anna, but it’s really wonderful. Rufus Norris, who directed the first production at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, is quite an earnest young director really. His earnestness, which was one of the things that I really loved about him, was on that stage, in a very quite sparse production. Equally, one thing I adore about Anna is that she’s very vivacious and bubbly, and that energy is on the stage. It’s amazing just how much the director is in the show by osmosis.

Mackmin: When you first read a play you have an awareness that there’s more than my production. Rufus is the most fantastic director and I love his work. I didn’t see his production otherwise I wouldn’t have known how to direct it myself, but I know his would have been so different to mine. I think that’s a sign of a brilliant play. A truly great play has four or five very, very different possible productions. That goes back to why it’s an important play to revive.

On the play’s structure & updates to the script

Anna Mackmin: The huge thrill of directing this play is the structural complexity of it. You can’t possibly have the final act without the other two, but you’re asking an audience to commit completely to what could feel like three utterly separate plays, and yet there are fragments and bits that run through the whole, so that everybody is complicit in earning the blessing of that final act. David was young when he wrote it, but I think it’s an extraordinarily mature piece, both structurally and emotionally. It’s very complicated. It’s not an easy piece from an acting point of view.

Eldridge: When you do a new play for the first time, the writer tends to do most in the first couple of weeks and then by the end you’re sort of making the tea. There were four things that were changed from the original script. There were two additions and two cuts.

On rehearsing separately

Lindsay: It’s like being in a box. You didn’t know what was going on. You always thought the other two lots were getting on much better than you were. I was really worried about that. The first time we saw each other, other than passing each other in the street sometimes really, was when we did the first run-through. When we did that run-through, Francesca and I were up last and we were sitting there thinking “oh no, they’re really good”.

Annis: When you first read the script, you have a sense of the whole and then when you come to rehearsals, because we rehearsed separately, you felt like it was just all about you. You felt like “we are the play, we’re playing Hamlet here”. Of course, when you have the first run-through, it is wonderful because you suddenly realise you’re part of a whole again.

Mackmin: It was very strange actually. Act One is incredibly busy and naturalistic, and very real, and yet I knew that where we were going in Act Three is very controlled and very still. It’s like the two ends of the spectrum are kind of earning each other. Normally in a company, everybody is referencing each other and by the end of week one if it’s going okay, actors have heard you giving a note to somebody else and they’re beginning to learn how you direct. But when it’s just the three of you, you know two actors and one director in these boxes as it were, it’s incredibly intense. I’m hugely grateful to the company because I could feel it on about day three, they all went “we’re just going to have to trust her, we’ll just have to go with it”. The actors weren’t under instruction not to talk to the other actors.

O’Dowd: We made that decision ourselves! After the first meeting.

Mackmin: No, that isn’t true. We did have a first day altogether and we had quite a stilted meal at one point. I tried to make a company in a way, and actually only the play can make the company. Ultimately, that could only happen when the whole production was together.

On stage fright

Tate: I don’t suffer from stage fright luckily. I think that’s because I’m actually a bit of a coward. I do know a lot of actors, a lot of my friends, who get very nervous. I don’t think I could push on and do the show if I was that nervous every night. It would take too much from me. I think I would have to turn it in. Perhaps one of the reasons why I don’t get stage fright is that I did stand-up comedy early on in my career and that takes your nerves away. I did get what I suppose is akin to stage fright the first time I ever did stand-up, because I actually thought “what am I doing this for? Why would I put myself through this?” But then I did it and I thought, “anything else I do will never be as frightening as that”. For example, a play, which somebody else has written, where I’m on stage with other people and other people have been there to direct me, is never going to be as frightening as going out on stage to a crowd of drunk people and firstly, presuming they’re going to be quiet, and secondly presuming they’re going to listen, and thirdly presuming people are going to laugh.

On cooking on stage

O’Dowd: The cooking is fine. Cooking takes care of itself. The opening of a tin on the other hand, I could live without it. Sometimes they open fine, sometimes they don’t. Lisa struggles with having to eat a pepper. I don’t have to eat anything which is good because it don’t look good from where I’m standing. With cooking you just really get used to it.

On using a knife in the first act

O’Dowd: I have very thick skin.

Mackmin: It’s kind of a theatre, pretend point, it’s not really that sharp. They swap the knives over. There’s a swap that takes place.

O’Dowd: No, we don’t! It is very scary, I have to be very brave.

On advice for aspiring actors

O’Dowd: Pick wisely.

Mackmin: That is a very good piece of advice.

Tate: And, if you don’t get work, make your own.

Annis: The greatest thing you can do is learn how to read a play because the leading part isn’t always the best part. Learn to read the play and see.

Mackmin: Directors will love you if you’ve done that. You will get the job. Lindsay: And sleep with as many directors as possible. O’Dowd: And up-and-coming young actors too!

- by Kate Jackson