Review: Blue Sky, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

“Oh God! Now’s everyone’s got their own blog…”

Ray enjoys plane-spotting. Since his wife died and his teenage daughter is growing up far too quickly for his liking, it has provided him with a much-needed reason to get out of the house and into the Shropshire countryside. But it is early 2003, Iraq is about to be invaded and there’s a strange buzz of activity around their little airfield. When childhood friend and freelance journalist Jane waltzes back into his life, trying to follow up a lead on a story about a missing Pakistani man last seen being forced onto a US plane, neither of them are prepared for just how far this story will reach.

Blue Sky is a pointedly political new play by Clare Bayley for the Pentabus Theatre company and in the intimate theatre downstairs at the Hampstead, director Elizabeth Freestone makes inventive use of the room with some excellent creative collaborations. Staged in traverse, Naomi Dawson’s deceptively simple design segments the open space, Johanna Town’s runway-inspired lighting is cleverly used as Adrienne Quartly’s sound design expands the horizons of the production into the big bad world being investigated.

With a remarkably refreshing lack of sentimentality, Sarah Malin makes Jane a coolly cosmopolitan figure, all wisecracks, dismissive putdowns and collected self-assuredness, which contrasts strongly with Jacob Krichefski’s endearing Ray, entirely comfortable in his small-town environment and stable geekery. And both are excellent in the depiction of an easily long-held relationship, which after some time apart, flickers into something potentially more as Ray struggles with his innate desire to turn the other cheek. Bayley’s attempts to give substantive back-stories to them is a little problematic though given the short running time and ultimately, they don’t seem entirely dramatically necessary in the context of the play.

For when the focus is on the ethics of investigative journalism – particularly into a subject so conflicted between national security and civil liberties, all the more powerful as the characters don’t possess the hindsight that we have now – there’s a tautness of possibility, the hint of something huge about to explode. Bayley never goes that far in her writing, preferring to keep matters low-key and tinged with regret and melancholy, which somehow feels both respectfully apt and slightly underwhelming.

As Ray’s daughter Ana, Dominique Bull captures the ebullient outrage of a student campaigner in the full flush of her first protest and at the vanguard of new media, she clashes amusingly with Jane, who resolutely holds onto her notebook and pen. And in a small but vital role, Manjeet Mann humanises the whole affair, reminding us that behind the thrill of the scoop and the chasing of government intrigues, are real crimes being perpetrated on real people. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50, free castsheet also available
Booking until 10th November

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