Blue Sky, the new play from Clare Bayley, is very much a work of two faces; it is on the one side an ‘issues’ play, written not from the heart but because some producers seem to think, bafflingly, that audience-enticing stories come from trailing page eight of the newspapers. And on the other side is the far more interesting (though not entirely interesting) story of two old friends and the unravelling of their interconnected back-story.
The first side is every bit the political thriller. An investigative journalist, Jane, is tracking down an aeroplane that may or may not be the CIA vessel used for kidnapping suspected Al Qaida operatives and sending them off for tortuous experiences in the shadows. The sub-Spooks plot, which gets weighed down in vagueness and flight numbers about half-way through, is besotted with the clichés of its own genre; and so, to a certain extent, it should be. Whilst this aspect of the story aspires to ITV drama, director Elizabeth Freestone has very eloquently used the spatial and temporal possibilities of theatre, flowing from scene to scene, and saved the story from an uncomfortable, unsatisfying, out-of-body experience (TV in theatreland). It could so easy have been mediocre television forced into a bad play. But, sometimes against the odds and in spite of the parts that make the sum, Blue Sky is not bad at all. It is well-acted (if workaday) and the pace is extremely well-judged.
There is no crushingly powerful moral to the story
Unfortunately – frustratingly – it is difficult to get away from the strong impression that Clare Bayley almost certainly has more interest in human relationships than she does in Black Ops. Despite this she has taken the time and effort to meld the two elements of her play well. It did bring to mind, however, the story of Robert Altman telephoning Julian Fellowes and asking him if he could write a script about the lives and experiences of the upstairs/downstairs of an early an English pre-war manor house for what would become his Oscar-winning film, Gosford Park. Fellowes replied that he’d never written a script before and wouldn’t know how to plot one. ‘I’m not interested in the plot’, Altman purportedly replied. ‘I’m interested in the people; although you might want to fit a murder in there somewhere.’
Blue Sky feels like a partially-successful, honourable effort, at attachment of plot to character, but the joins are still visible, and the fact that the plot takes place in the shadow of 9/11 does, oddly, make it feel dated. There was no real answer as to why we were watching this story in 2012. There should be obvious universal and timeless truths coming out of the script, but they are too slight to lend the play any real weight. In an age when Abu Hamza is rarely out of the news, some allusions to how the nature of our battles have remained the same even when the geography of them may have been forced to alter, may have lifted the play on the whole. It tries to be a play about belief, (and for a long period anyone who understands the television genre from which Blue Sky takes its lead will be extremely suspicious of Jacob Krichefski’s amiable Ray), but again the script wears the motif too thinly for it to really hit home. There is no crushingly powerful moral to the story, although everything in the play seems to be nudging us toward one throughout. We discover at the end only that Jane is just as unlikeable as we always suspected, and that Ray will better off without her; his daughter, Ana, most definitely will be. Ana is a young activist and wanna-be investigative journalist, blogging about conspiracy theories. It is Jane and Ana that have the most satisfying cycle to their relationship; beginning with arguments about old media and new media and ending with a compromise – very much a microcosm of the debate the media giants have been involved in for ten years or more. But in the end Blue Sky is a compromise in itself, it seems; an interesting bunch of characters playing too heavily with an unsatisfying ITV drama plot that, for quite some time now, small productions feel is the most dramatic way to be relevant.