Under the Blue Sky
written by David Eldridge
directed by Anna Mackmin
at the Duke of York’s Theatre
Lisa Dillon, Nigel Lindsay, Chris O’Dowd, Dominic Rowan and Catherine Tate
Love goes ka-boom. I read an interview with a young playwright, David Eldridge, who was asked about current conditions in the British theater. At 27 he had a precocious smash hit at the Royal Court in 2000 with Under the Blue Sky, a study in three scenes of romance and sexual frustration among secondary school teachers. The subject sounds deadly, and one can understand why five London theatres originally turned it down. The commercial West End trembles like melting marmalade when faced with serious dramatic writing, and the pay for playwrights is criminally low, to the point that talented ones scrounge for a living, even after having a hit. (I’m reminded of the improbable moment when Sam Goldwyn brought the poet-playwright Maurice Maeterlinck from Paris to Hollywood. Goldwyn’s familiarity with Maeterlinck’s masterpiece, Pelleas et Melisande, was dubious. The work to be adapted for the big screen was a strange naturalist treatise, The Life of the Bee. After reading the first draft of the script, Goldwyn rushed out of his office screaming, “My God, it’s about a bee!”)
Because it had originally been greeted with raptures, I went to the current revival of Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky at the Duke of York’s. Even though I am typing under the influence, I couldn’t go to bed, or shake the high of attending something so stirring, without saying that for me this is the play of the season. Its three vignettes are subtly connected, in the manner of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, but not so literally. The six teachers in question, some from a tony public school, others from soul-numbing jobs in the East End, are true literary creations. Eldridge dredged into the lives of real schoolteachers (his father works in a shoe factory, and Eldridge himself went to a red-brick uni), but that’s like saying that T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party depicts how people behave at a cocktail party. The experience of love that Eldridge unfolds is a psychic evisceration, and it’s fitting that the evening opens with a deafening boom, the sound of an IRA bomb going off at Canary Wharf in 1996.
The explosion is mentioned in the first scene, where one teacher, Nick, is cooking chilli in his bachelor pad for another, his quasi-girlfriend Helen. They slept together one night three years before, but ever since Nick has been too self-absorbed to notice that Helen has fallen for him bad, and even when she confesses her feelings in the most wrenching way, Nick’s instinct is to skitter sideways. Helen ‘s love has gone boom, and she’s not alone.
The second incident concerns a date gone sordidly wrong when Graham, a sexual novice at twenty-eight, prematurely ejaculates at the moment he is about to score with the drunk, slatternly Michelle. Far from taking pity, Michelle unleashes a tirade of world-class bitterness, self-hatred, and humiliation. She, too, has a passion for Nick and was using Graham as a revenge ploy after being dumped. One should mention that the play is a comedy, and so Graham’s psychological destruction is funny, the way Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is funny when the game of Hump the Hostess gets out of control. When love becomes scabrous, all you can do is laugh. The third episode is the antidote and lyrical balm for the earlier two, a beach scene “under the blue sky” of Devon where an older teacher, Anne, is wooed by a suddenly passionate best friend, the pudgy and much younger Robert.
I shouldn’t mark time by giving pointless plot details. What makes the whole play go boom in your heart is its art, the way Eldridge transmutes everyday encounters into flights of psychological truth, sometimes allowing his characters to launch into poetry (as when Anne recounts the tragic love story between her aunt and a boy who died horribly at Ypres in 1916) or erupt in howling pain at the love they have lost, betrayed, perverted (the naive Graham turns out to be a weasely stalker), and squandered. The dialog is swift, unexpected, and in its way perfect. I wouldn’t hedge my praise by saying “in its way,” except that Under the Blue Sky does fudge a bit in a final idyll that takes off with comic rapture when Robert shimmies like a bowl of pink Jell-O to the cornball pop classic, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, coaxing the reticent, forlorn Anne to join him. Eldridge lapses into romantic comedy at this point, and one feels that the audience is being rushed to the exits with warmed cockles. But that’s a minor flaw; otherwise, the evening’s experience was a thrill. I wish that the play I wrote about last night, On the Rocks, ha done similar poetic justice to D. H. Lawrence. By tackling the eruption of passion and the salvation of fleshly contact, Eldridge dances on Lawrence’s grave. He dances lightly, though, and if his eviscerations are more bracing than his epiphanies, who’s going to begrudge him that?