Friday, July 25, 2008

Under The Blue Sky at the Duke Of York's

I’m sure I’ve asked before what the collective term for a group of bloggers is. I’m not sure what consensus was reached on that matter but it was just such a group that descended on the Duke of York’s Theatre on Tuesday to see a preview of David Eldridge’s Under The Blue Sky, a production featuring her off Doctor Who, him off The It Crowd and them off Cranford. There were 14 of us in total, including Helen Smith, City Slicker and Paul in London, in a group outing arranged by the Whingers (and, appropriately, as with most school trips, someone was late, someone left their jacket behind, but no one was sick on the coach home fortunately, not that there was a coach home).

David Eldridge’s play, first staged at the Royal Court, in 2000, is divided into three sections, each concerning the relationship between a pair of teachers (how apt that it opens just as the school holidays begin). The first section, featuring Chris O’Dowd (him off The IT Crowd) and Lisa Dillon, was possibly the weakest. O’Dowd plays Nicholas, a bit of shit, who though aware that his fellow teacher Nicola has a bit of a thing for him, still uses her as his ‘best friend’, comfortable in the knowledge that there’s nothing she won’t do for him. Nicola is however incredibly shrill and clingy, which has the effect of diluting much of the sympathy you feel for her. Neither is particularly likeable but the sequence has an increasing rawness that I found compelling (up until, that is, Nicola does something so completely far-fetched that any sense of emotional plausibility was lost, for me at least).

The middle section is the one featuring Catherine Tate, now recovered after the ankle injury that caused them to cancel the first preview. She plays the school man-eater a role she is adept at despite wearing the world’s most unflattering dress, a nasty brown jersey thingy, belted at the waist. We first see her as she is luring the geeky Dominic Rowan to bed with a bit of fantasy role play, her playing a military nurse tending to his war wounds, the prospect of which gets him rather (over) excited. Eldridge takes this sitcom-ish set up, the misguided drink fuelled liaison between two colleagues and rapidly subverts it, their exchange takes on a sinister turn, laced with blackmail and self-loathing. The tension and unease in this scene was handled incredibly well and I enjoyed not knowing how it would end up, not knowing quite how far it would go. Tate’s role too appeared quite caricatured at first and whenever she raised her voice, used a certain tone, it did bring to mind some of her television comedy characters (I’ve not seen her in Who though which I gather puts me in a very small minority indeed) but her character and performance gradually, subtly, softened allowing the audience a glimpse of underlying damage.

The final pairing of Francesca Annis and Nigel Lindsay was quite wonderful. They play a couple of friends who spend most of the school holidays together and are clearly besotted with one another, but she has held back, fearing the age barrier will be too big a hurdle. This is a beautiful scene, superbly played and written, there is a real sense of maturation in the writing as the play progresses, a sense of a writer testing the limits of his abilities and finding them pleasingly elastic.

After the play David Eldridge unwisely wandered past the pub that we decamped to for a post-theatre glass of something and was, for his sins, subsequently bombarded with questions about prop knives and onstage food hygiene. That’ll teach him.

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