Sexy ... and well acted too

Under the Blue Sky | Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London
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The Independent Culture

David Hare recently updated La Ronde as The Blue Room. In Under the Blue Sky, premiered now in the Theatre Upstairs, David Eldridge plays some cheekily comic and ultimately very moving variations on the same format. Schnitzler's drama is an erotic daisy-chain of duologues that each end in consensual intercourse, one of the participants (culled from a wide social spread) moving on to the next sexual encounter.

David Hare recently updated La Ronde as The Blue Room. In Under the Blue Sky, premiered now in the Theatre Upstairs, David Eldridge plays some cheekily comic and ultimately very moving variations on the same format. Schnitzler's drama is an erotic daisy-chain of duologues that each end in consensual intercourse, one of the participants (culled from a wide social spread) moving on to the next sexual encounter.

Eldridge keeps the idea of interlocking two-handers, but in his version, while sex is always on the cards, it is bedevilled by premature ejaculation, or wanted madly by only one of the pair, or indulged in as the grisly result of blackmail. And here, people pass into the succeeding playlets not in the rutting flesh but as offstage characters who, from the conversation, we gradually realise are having a crucial effect on the current scene.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, all the characters are school teachers.

Presented in a traverse-staging with just a bed at one end of the long acting area and a kitchen range at the other, Rufus Norris's splendid production coaxes some beautifully detailed acting from a crack cast. Coitus interruptus is seen at its most farcical at the start of the second episode when a furiously snogging couple tumble onto the bed, dry humping to a panting fantasy of him being a ravenous battle-scarred hero just back from the war.

But then, with sublimely timed bathos, our mustachioed war-god comes even before penetration and emerges (in Jonathan Cullen's expertly funny-sad and uncondescending performances) as plain old detumescent Graham Ibbotson, staff-room bore-in-residence and raging virgin.

Sexually obsessed with his colleague Michelle (Lisa Palfrey), a Welsh slapper, he is now treated to her cackling derision as she explains that she only wanted to bed him in order to spite Nick (Justin Salinger), a character that we have already seen being equivalently horrid to another adoring teacher.

This repeated pattern of unequal love is eventually broken in the final scene, played with a wonderful sensitive humanity and warm humour by Sheila Hancock and Stanley Townsend. Two teachers from different schools who have gone on platonic joint holidays, they come close to parting because of her worry about the 20-year age gap between them. The sequence in which Townsend's big Irish bear of a man forces an at first reluctant, then parodic, then besotted Hancock into bopping to the tape of "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" may sound corny in principle, but it's one of the most delightful and touching things currently on the London stage.

Eldridge, whom I suspect has also been influenced by Robert Holman's wonderful triptych Making Noise Quietly, delicately places these private emotions in a context of public events - the terrorist bomb in Docklands; the Great War during which Hancock's aunt lost a lover - and of an ongoing commentary about the tricky position of teachers (does job satisfaction mean moving into the private sector? Is it a job or a mission?).

There are lines that make you laugh out loud (as when Michelle says of a staff-room lothario: "A thousand humiliations behind closed doors and yet so, so pleasant on parents' evening") and details that show a truly poetic eye (the aunt, at the Front, noticing ,as she bathes her young soldier's wounds, that his acne has disappeared). At the end, as they take their bows, the cast have the glow of people who know that they are taking part in something special.

* To 7 Oct (020-7565 5000)

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