Thursday, August 07, 2008

Under the Blue Sky - Duke of York's Theatre, London Saturday 2nd August 2008

The plan HAD been for me to book tickets for the Duke of York's staging of Under the Blue Sky as a surprise for Cloud. That got blown when he asked for me to book some: damn.

Anyway, this play came at the end of a long day's mooching but nevertheless it kept us attentive.

MediumRob pointed out the "awkward and incongruous" nature of the middle third of the play. Most reviews have tended towards a 3/5 rating, with several commenting on Dominic Rowan being miscast as the nerdy Graham (and more) foil to Catherine Tate's Michelle.

WARNING - depending on your POV you may consider the following review to have spoilers

Three pairs of teachers each have 30 minute scenes, with the characters from each reappearing in the dialogue of the subsequent tales which take place over around 18 months. Each pairing has a relationship of some sort which is being misjudged or misunderstood by at least one of each pair.

Nick (Chris O'Dowd) says he is "confused" about his friendship with Helen (Lisa Dillon), but really Nick is too squeamish about relationships to actually be truly honest with himself or Helen: for all that his inept remarks are like knife wounds to Helen, Nick can't quite make the final cut, weakly succumbing to compromise after a flashing turn of violence between them. Despite this dark undertone, the segment is largely played for laughs, with O'Dowd using his genial comic persona to good effect. Dillon has a rawer deal - both as actress and character - being rather too poorly written to have the searing impact she should have given her role in the subsequent narrative. Overall I'd argue this is the weakest of the two-handers but it's an appropriate foil to the later two and eases in some sharp laughter points.

The middle segment concerns Michelle (Catherine Tate) and Graham (Dominic Rowan). This is the dark heart of the play, where the sense of potential violence hinted at in the first segment is made brutally and vividly real. If act one is threat, then act two is the actual violence. Tate gives a truly stomach-turning performance as the sexually greedy Michelle exacting revenge on being dumped by Nick by attempting to have sex with her nerdy confidante, Graham. But what seems to have been largely missed is the tone of damage and need that underpins Michelle's sexual appetite -- an appetite for destruction one might say. Is Michelle misunderstood? Perhaps; I'd certainly make a case for her misunderstanding herself, wilfully playing to her voracious persona. And she certainly makes a misjudgement about Graham, whose sexual competance starts the segment in failure and ends in a horrific revenge.

This was perhaps the moment where I was most uncomfortable with the audience's reaction which had far too much laughter still than I felt was appropriate. Time Out said "it’s hard to care when [Graham] duly turns on her". Well, we should care; I cared. Graham is revealed to be a far more complex, manipulative creature than his initial stumbling appearance would suggest, and his eventual overpowering of Michelle is both emotional and physical -- and utterly terrifying. I'm not sure the audience really got what was going on in this segment - certainly with the ending - too dazzled were they by Tate's comedic skills and perhaps distracted by Rowan being a tad too attractive to convince as the seemingly hapless Graham. I'd personally make a case that given how Graham's character turns as this segment develops, it actually works to have someone who initially only sort-of looks the part of a hapless figure before revealing himself to have controlling depths. Maybe it was the angle we were sat at to the stage, or maybe Rowan has eased into the skin of Graham, but I didn't feel I was watching someone too handsome to convince me of the character's nerdiness.

Anyway, it's undoubtedly a very uncomfortable middle to the play, but I would argue that it needs to be. It needs to take the hints of brutality from the first part and make them concrete. Isn't a bright morning always better after the darkest of nights?

And what a bright morning.

Most of the praise for this show has been heaped on the performance of Anne (Francesca Annis*) who is simply incredible. Underpinning the segment is, at first, further skirting around the real issues and relationship that is being misjudged/misunderstood. Nick and Helen certainly skirted around each other, Nick especially shirking any honest confrontation with Helen's 'lack of confusion'; Michelle too, despite her brutal and vile 'honesty' about her sexual activities, seemed to be skirting the real issue of confronting her own self-esteem and seriously misjudges her initial perceptions of Graham. Here, in the final segment, the misunderstanding is played with far more subtlety as the age gap between Anne and Robert (Nigel Lindsay) is cautiously danced around. A diversion into a tale of the First World War - highlighting the age gap - plays an allusive part in the narrative as the relationship seems to falter without having come to the boil. But this is where the play ultimately soars as the pair take a chance on being more honest, overcoming possible misreadings, finding hope under the blue sky.

I have to admit, I did let some tears fall during the final act. What can I say? I'm a softie. But this was a very adult and intense evening's theatre. Not quite brilliant, but very worth seeing.


* Foolishly trying to retrieve from whence I would have first seen Annis on screen, I grabbed at Poldark elsewhere which is of course completelt wrong as that was Angharad Rees. What I was trying to retrieve from my memory was that other great 1970s costume piece, Lillie.

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