The C4 comedy drama Teachers famously depicted the out-of-hours alcohol-fuelled sexual antics of a fictitious bunch of twenty-something teachers who behaved more like the teenagers they taught, except with more baggage and fewer morals. David Eldridge’s play Under The Blue Sky premiered at the Royal Court the same year the first series of the TV show aired, in 2000. With a bittersweet humour, it too centres on the private lives of teachers, spanning 18 months in the lives of six characters, whose relationships with each other are messy, touching, awkward, and sometimes just ugly.
Each of the play’s three scenes focuses on one pair of teachers who might be friends, might be lovers, or, more likely, are something in between. In the first we see Nick (Chris O’Dowd) and Helen (Lisa Dillon) cooking in Nick’s flat. While the chilli simmers (for real, making several audience members’ stomachs gurgle in hunger), their chat covers the recent IRA bomb, Nick’s job application to a private school and their loaded, uncomfortable friendship. The unstable and clearly besotted Helen aches for more than the drunken fumble they shared three years ago, but Nick keeps her at arm’s length, while still, selfishly, courting the attention he obviously enjoys.
Act two sees Catherine Tate play the staff room slag, Michelle, who is so full to bursting with personal baggage that it all comes tumbling out one drunken night she shares with the sexually and socially inept Graham (Dominic Rowan). Sexually brazen and cuttingly cruel to her colleague and supposed friend, it is hard to equate Michelle’s personal life with that of a Maths teacher at a private school. Graham, tormented by his inexperience and secretly obsessed with Michelle during the seven years that she has been working her way through the school’s male staff, has demons that are just as damaging as hers.
The third and final pairing is that of older teacher Anne (Francesca Annis) and her younger former colleague Robert (Nigel Lindsay). While the first two relationships seem ugly and inevitably headed for disaster, this one is touching and genuine and gives the play a gentle, sweet denouement as the pair finally acknowledge the love they have resisted – out of fear or embarrassment – during their many years of friendship.
Though each scene is separate, the characters are linked though the Essex school where they have all at some point worked, and Robert recounts the outcome of Helen, Michelle and Nick’s stories during his conversation with Anne. In contrast to the bitterness that resides in his colleagues’ lives, Robert and Anne’s new beginning seems all the sweeter.
Ultimately this is a study of the pain, the hurt and the joy of relationships; relationships that exist in any context, not just in a staff room. Teachers, after all, are no more prone to messy matters of the heart than the rest of us.