It starts with a bang. The houselights snap out on the sound of a bomb blast. It’s the IRA’s 1996 attack on London’s Canary Wharf, but terrorism is only the background of David Eldridge’s “Under the Blue Sky” that premiered at the Royal Court in 2000. The bombs Eldridge drops in his triptych of interlinked relationships are of the more domestic kind. That they are detonated with emotional precision and power — and humor — is a tribute to Anna Mackmin’s assured revival.
“Knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing that anyone can learn.” That observation about lovers’ timing, from the song by lyricist Hal David, isn’t quoted in Eldridge’s play, but it’s something all his characters get badly wrong. Mistimed exits from these relationships have far-reaching consequences — both funny and fatal — for three couples whose lives cunningly connect off-stage.
Eldridge’s paired characters are presented in three duologue scenes over 18 months. But although they are all teachers, they’re depicted less by unseen schools and pupils and more by their private lives and lies.
In the first section, Nick (genial Chris O’Dowd) is cooking supper for his colleague Helen (Lisa Dillon). She harbors far stronger feelings than he acknowledges, an area of amusement and confusion that Eldridge and Mackmin negotiate skillfully with the actors skittering awkwardly around Lez Brotherston’s chic kitchen set.
Nick is comically unaware of his conveniently unthinking insensitivity toward the woman he has strung along for over a year. Her frustration rockets with his sheepish announcement that he intends to quit his job alongside her in the public school system to move to less stressful private education. Already poised on a knife-edge between open comic embarrassment and semi-hidden pain, the scene turns nasty as Helen threatens Nick.
Effective though this is, the danger that needs to continue through the remainder of the encounter doesn’t quite resonate.
Helen is worryingly needy, but as Dillon’s carefully understated performance makes touchingly plain, she masks her feelings. The opposite is true of Michelle, the teacher who, 15 months later, has been dumped by Nick.
In an adroit piece of star-casting, no-holds-barred, battle-scarred Michelle is played by TV’s favorite actress-turned-comedienne Catherine Tate. As she proved in the London production of Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s),” Tate has winning stage energy.
From the moment she enters the bedroom of nerdy Graham (Dominic Rowan), both actress and character are in control. The scene opens with hilarious but hopeless sex. With Graham’s premature ejaculation, sexual excitement is replaced by an increasingly high-voltage bout of confession and recrimination.
Tate seizes every opportunity to turn Michelle’s revelations into attacks. As the object of both her revenge-sex and viciously withering scorn, the skilled Rowan survives being slightly miscast. Appropriately tall and upstanding as a dull history teacher with a sideline in military coaching, he is implausibly handsome and easeful as a 36-year-old virgin. However, Rowan’s release of misery and shame powers through to a final shocking act of revenge.
There is a something of an imbalance in the depiction of the genders in the first two scenes — all four behave badly, but the women initially come across as more deluded and neurotic. Eldridge more than makes amends in the quietly tender final scene.
Emotional mistiming is once again the key. Fifty-eight-year-old Anne (Francesca Annis) declares she can no longer continue as close friend and traveling companion to 42-year-old Robert (Nigel Lindsay). Her expression of the need to maintain distance between them mirrors the opening relationship, but this time the emotional bombshell results in a extraordinarily touching ending. Annis and Lindsay use exquisite restraint to suggest the longevity and depth of the friendship and the compassion in Eldridge’s writing simply glows.
Typically balancing emotional difficulty with humor, Eldridge has Robert cajoling Anne into dancing farewell to Neil Sedaka. The track in question? “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” But as Lindsay literally sweeps Annis off her feet, it isn’t just they who are suddenly giddy with happiness — the warmth of their connection floods the auditorium.