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Review Round-up: Will the Sky Stay Blue for Tate?

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Eight years after it first appeared at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Under the Blue Sky opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre on Friday night (25 July 2008, previews from 14 July), featuring a stellar cast including comedienne Catherine Tate and Francesca Annis (See News, 9 May 2008). Following the press night performance, the cast were joined by playwright David Eldridge and other star guests at a glitzy post-show party at Soho’s Studio Valbonne (See Today’s 1st Night Photos).

Under the Blue Sky was first seen at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in September 2000 in a production directed by Rufus Norris with a cast including Sheila Hancock. This new West End premiere 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.

In the darkly comic play, a group of teachers get together for a long evening of drinking tequila and revealing secrets about friendship and love, both shared and unrequited.

Catherine Tate is joined in the West End cast by Lisa Dillon, Nigel Lindsay and Dominic Rowan, who recently finished a stint at the NT in Happy Now?. The production is designed by Lez Brotherston and produced by Sonia Friedman Productions.

Critics had mixed opinions on the success of this West End transfer, with some applauding the decision to bring the play “to a wider audience” while others lamented that the script was “crushingly simple” and out of its depth on a West End stage, being “middlebrow, schematic and undemanding”. The actors were largely hailed as “uniformly top class”, and Tate in particular was singled out as “splendid” in her “no-holds-barred performance”. Director Anna Mackmin was given credit for creating a “fine revival”, but critics just couldn\'t agree on whether Under the Blue Sky “defiantly waves the flag for bold new drama”, or is simply an “adolescent schoolboy comedy”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “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 … 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.”

  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (three stars) – “Those who complain of a lack of serious plays in the West End should look no further. Of course, although it is new writing, it\'s not actually new, having premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs in 2000. But the emotions here are never second hand, and the final segment - exquisitely performed by Annis and Lindsay - is as compassionate, luminous and delicately written an examination of the difficulty of acknowledging and embracing love as you are ever likely to see. In an era when all our personal relationships are conducted in the shadow of wars being fought in our name, Eldridge\'s play takes on new resonance; and if Anna Mackmin\'s production doesn\'t yet quite negotiate the balance between pain and comedy, this quietly thoughtful evening reminds that the wars conducted behind closed doors also maim and mutilate.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “All credit to the producer, Sonia Friedman, for taking the plunge with a piece which richly deserves a second run and which defiantly waves the flag for bold new drama in a theatrical landscape dominated by musicals. The big draw here is Catherine Tate, although this is certainly not an evening for children who admired her performance as Donna Noble in Doctor Who … There\'s a dramatic courage in Tate\'s explicit, no-holds-barred performance that bodes well for her career as a serious actress … Dillon\'s vulnerable, breathless intensity powerfully captures the pain of unrequited love, though quite why she should have fallen so hard for O\'Dowd\'s charmless beardie of a pedagogue is beyond me. In the final act, Eldridge does something exceptionally rare in modern drama - he writes a piece with a happy ending that rings absolutely true, suggesting that life can suddenly be blessed by late-flowering love … Anna Mackmin directs this superb tripartite play with satisfying depth and psychological detail, while Lez Brotherston supplies stylish designs. In the efficiently air-cooled Duke of York\'s, Under the Blue Sky proves a dramatically provocative, sexually hot and ultimately heart-warming summer treat.”

  • Deborah Orr in the Independent (two stars) – \"… The staging of this play may rely on few props – a kitchen unit, a table, a bed. But the stage is cluttered with great chunks of spoken lumber, plonked down around the place, haphazard and unanchored, neither divorced from the action, nor central to it. Not that there is much in the way of action, or interaction. The formal staging of the play is crushingly simple also – three two-handers, of half-an-hour each. They are competently described sketches of messed up human relationships, but nothing more. The most comic and pathetic pairing is that of Graham and Michelle, an inadequate and unattractive pair played with heavy-handed humour by Catherine Tate and Dominic Rowan. The most touching and warm pairing is of Anne and Robert, played by Francesca Annis and Nigel Lindsay. But even here the script is laughably familiar. Annis is even obliged to deliver a long meditation on her Auntie May, whose young love died on (who\'d have imagined) Flanders Field. The reference is to Jean Brodie, but Muriel Spark did it all many years ago, and so very much more brilliantly, that Eldridge\'s nod is nothing less than a self-immolating insult. This is an awesomely middlebrow, schematic and undemanding piece of work.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars) – “And you thought that teachers at secondary schools spent their time in the common room earnestly discussing grades, exams, league tables, university entrance and such? Think again. If David Eldridge is to be believed - and he writes with an authority that surely comes from first-hand experience - you won\'t find such sex-crazed places outside heaving basements in Soho or King\'s Cross … The play was first staged at the Royal Court\'s Theatre Upstairs in 2000 and, though it is sometimes ugly and (less deliberately) repetitive, is well enough observed and written to deserve its belated appearance in the West End … Why does the evening begin with the IRA bombing at Canary Wharf and contain so many references to war and the military? To put these private anguishings into some perspective? Perhaps. But all I know is that Anna Mackmin\'s cast is exceptionally strong and Eldridge\'s play unnerving proof that the body of the teacher is at least as fallible as the mind of the child.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Seriously over-valued at its Royal Court Upstairs premiere in 2000, this David Eldridge triptych about the psycho-sexual hang-ups and problematic tie-ups of three schoolteacher couples is oddly chosen for West End revival. Under the Blue Sky \'s trio of two character, half-hour plays, linked by direct or indirect sexual associations, seeks to show how emotionally retarded and repressed schoolteachers can be when involved with each other. The same charge might similarly be leveled against any professional, roughly middle-class grouping - journalists or even playwrights for example. About teachers\' professional problems, which might cast light on their private tensions, Eldridge offers no insights … In Nick\'s smart kitchen, Eldridge stirs an unlikely plot. Lisa Dillon\'s attractive Helen is so masochistically smitten by this exploitative man that, although he has slept with her just once in three years, she still tries to occupy his life and bed. A pathetic situation is effortfully milked for laughs, though not as much as in the farcial excesses of the second play, where Catherine Tate\'s splendid, razor-tongued, sexual opportunist, Michelle tries vainly to get more than a rise out of Dominic Rowan\'s unpopular teacher, Graham - a virginal, prematurely ejaculating, voyeuristic stalker. Such adolescent schoolboy comedy yields to an equally preposterous scenario.”

    - by Kate Jackson

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