Eight years ago, David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky was acclaimed in the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs as a thoroughly engaging, poetic, ninety-minute triptych of interlocking erotic duets for three pairs of teachers in the East End, Essex and finally on a Devon beach.
Anna Mackmin’s fine revival at the Duke of York’s, with an entirely different cast led by Catherine Tate as a slatternly maths teacher in the second section and Francesca Annis as a wistful senior in the third, is cause for double celebration: the play is rightfully restored to a wider audience and proves the West End is not yet a graveyard for serious new drama as bruited abroad by one or two critics and Alan Ayckbourn.
First, we see the charismatic Nick (Chris O\'Dowd) attempting to close down his relationship with needy Helen (Lisa Dillon) while cooking up a chilli dinner and revealing that he is moving from their state school in Leyton to the private sector. Next, two teachers at Nick’s new school in Chingford, drunken Michelle (Tate) and her staff room colleague Graham (Dominic Rowan) play sex games, underpinned with mutual loathing.
Finally, as Lez Brotherston’s functional but sleek sliding design gives way to a neutral Devon vista of sun and sky, Annis’s Anne -- a Tiverton teacher who takes platonic summer holidays with Nigel Lindsay’s much younger Robert, a colleague of Nick and Michelle, with sad tidings from Leytonstone -- wrestles with memories of a war-time tragedy, her sense of duty and the prospect of a late-flowering physical relationship.
Eldridge’s skilful, economical writing moves from early 1996 across eighteen months, from the moment of the IRA bomb in Canary Wharf to the shadow of Armistice Day, with these war-time realities punctured by Graham’s sex-toy-soldier who submerges his real-life inadequacies on the parade ground of the school cadet force.
The acting is uniformly top class, starred A-grade status, three superbly constructed and nuanced duets of casual callousness and emotional dependency, with Tate projecting a portrait of monstrous vulgarity to match the proud flaunting of her breasts in the face of Rowan’s mixed-up stalker, while the imperishably beautiful Annis and Lindsay resolve their tension in a karaoke dance to “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and an impassioned embrace before the Last Post sounds in the historic distance.