Behind the staffroom door

Themes of platonic and unrequited love keep a flawed revival relevant

<strong>Under the Blue Sky<

When I was a boy at prep school, I used to look through the window of the teachers' common room and imagine the affairs they were all having. As an adult, I had a brilliant idea how to extend the Grange Hill franchise: whenever it was shown there would be a post-watershed, adult version concentrating on the teachers. Parents and children could fill in one another over the school run. Sadly, I neglected to tell Phil Redmond of my brainwave and Grange Hill is no more. Channel 4 did give us Teachers, but it never really got beyond the joke that the pedagogues were more childish than their charges.

David Eldridge's play Under the Blue Sky - its title means nothing, incidentally - is also about adolescent crushes in the common room, but it is a more mature work than Teachers. It also features, I am pretty sure, a reference to my old school, an unpretentious place in Essex with, until recently, an outdoor swimming pool. Nick, the teacher in the first of the three playlets that make up the evening, is about to quit his east London comprehensive for its Elysian playing fields. The problem is that he has something going with his colleague Helen, a best friend he made the mistake of sleeping with, just the once. We meet them as Nick cooks her dinner in his flat and she prepares for sex by getting drunk. His intentions are not honourable: he wants to get out of the relationship they don't really have. He says he is confused."You are the most important person in the world to me but I don't know if I love you, if I am capable of loving you." Her reply got a big laugh on the night: "Arsehole!" His sell-out to the private sector - the play is not otherwise political - is also a sell-out of her. The play was the least effective of the three, but Chris O'Dowd (The IT Room) was excellent as the vague and self-pitying Nick, and Helen, the wasted woman, was touchingly played by Lisa Dillon.

The second feature was a chance for Catherine Tate to play big and show how good she is at playing drunk (very). As the sluttish teacher Michelle, she had come back to the flat of the virginal teacher Graham, who is so eager for a grope of her "two balls of love fuck" that he comes in his pants. This is all Michelle wants of him, an affirmation of her allure and a chance to humiliate the least sought-out member of the staffroom. This section of the evening teetered between hilarity and embarrassment. "Make me a man," he pleads, to which she replies, "Don't make me do that!" You had to wonder who was the more pathetic, the virgin or the bike.

Tate literally threw herself into the role. She has succeeded Alison Steadman as the avatar of female chav. Dominic Rowan, however, was miscast. He was not nearly physically inadequate enough. You wanted Mackenzie Crook.

Both of these acts went on too long, but the last was compelling. It featured the chaste romance between Anne and Robert, twin-bed holidaygoers and former colleagues. The only bar to their getting off, it became obvious, was that Anne was 20 years Robert's senior. Nigel Lindsay did the funniest middle-aged disco dance I have ever seen, but I am not sure if he did not look too old to play Robert. That may have been the fault of youthful Francesca Annis, who as Anne was luminous, so pretty that you wondered not why Ralph Fiennes spent so long with her but why he left. The twist was that while she had travelled to tell Robert that their platonic affair had to end, she was as much in love with him as he was with her. They decided to spend their life together and then settled for at least one more holiday. And sex.

The play, confidently directed by Anna Mackmin, is a revival of the 2000 Royal Court hit. It has its problems. The plots mesh only in the third act and the confluence, although containing news of a tragedy, is not felt. A military metaphor, linking the bombing of Canary Wharf in 1996 with the Great War, runs through the evening without connecting with the action. But unrequited and platonic loves are rarely explored in drama. The warm response from the audience suggested they deserved to be.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

West Side Story
Sadler’s Wells, London EC1
The Sharks and the Jets still make for a special night after 50 years.

Some Trace of Her
Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
Dostoevsky meets Katie Mitchell in this Idiot revamp.

A Doll's House
Theatre Royal, Bath
Peter Hall directs the wonderful Catherine McCormack in Ibsen's groundbreaking drama. Theatre Royal run ends 9 August.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire