Brighton Fringe 2018
Foyster writes and also directs Blue Sky Thinking for Pop Heart Productions and with Dukebox support operates lighting and sound. This is a little predictable but perfectly functional. The set’s two chairs, a table and a laptop, all in constant fluid use: a fine example of maximising a slim stage. Starring Chelsea Newton Mountney.
It might be an intimate space but it’s good to see well-written, solidly-cast short plays at this venue. Rich Foyster’s bright Blue Sky Thinking sheds just that blue slant on those lined-up office-heavy clichés in this four-strong cast where Chelsea Newton Mountney’s Penny duets Turgenev-like in turn with three male actors. There’s never a time when this expands to three or four. So Newton Mountney’s performance is key; a demanding part where her only relief is in a shift of register dealing with each of their protagonists.
Foyster also directs and with Dukebox support operates lighting and sound. This is a little predictable but perfectly functional. The set’s two chairs, a table and a laptop, all in constant fluid use: a fine example of maximising a slim stage.
Penny, an actor turned writer/director lives with cash-strapped and not financially provident carpenter Rob, who loves her being creative and doesn’t really want her to divert herself from ruffled hair with a pencil in her ear.
She’s dressed very differently with a pencil-striped jacket interviewed by Greg (the experienced Culann Smyth) a jocular interlocutor where Penny gives 18th century asides to the audience about what she really thinks. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag – without the graphic sex but just as mordant. She doesn’t understand Greg’s comical jargon, even less his calibrations of everything to Star Wars terminology as his USP of efficiency. And as for the job, despite her smart answers and that one ‘interesting’ a deadly word covering her theatre work, she’s here for the money only. You’re wholly on Penny’s side of course. No-one dies regretting they’d not spent more time in the office. And the job underneath that plethora of reproductive noises? Photocopier.
Smyth’s muddle-management Greg is horribly well calibrated. That spray of cheerleading admixed with a hint of menace, as he realizes Penny’s far smarter than her job description and indeed should be fast-tracked. He has a special rather unsavoury job for her.
Rob meanwhile is increasingly unhappy as Penny’s overtime designed to hoik them out of the debt that might be a little bit his fault, finds Penny unable to write and focused on extricating them. Daniel Lovett rounds an appealing picture of someone who knows what’s best in Penny and has been and continues to be wholly supportive of that Penny. But the emerging one’s a trial. In contrast to what you’d expect, he’s not only hard-working but successful, lining up commission after commission with an advance to finally pay off their debts after Penny’s spectacular efforts.
Penny meanwhile has encountered her office colleague. Refreshingly as Penny reports there’s no office sexism anywhere. One of the potential and often-covered conflicts is male attitudes: none of the three display it. Foyster’s intent on something else altogether.
Trevor Scales’ Bill is a disappointed man and manages to dispense a strange inner life (via coffee and chilled water) where he was roadie for Oasis, once meeting Jagger at a party, with a thoroughly disappointed decency. He’s been there five years. He’s lonely though never comes on to Penny, being thirty years older and with wit to see it. His stories, through the twelve-pub crawl with their old friend who went to drama college, Jude, begins to irritate Penny. It’s not just that he means Jude Law, another fantasy she thinks. It’s that he’s so gleeful over a friend’s drunken incident and the appearance of his wife that she feels poor Bill’s life has shrunk to nothing but reverie.
It’s Bill though who tells her of the incredibly motivated Gareth who had a breakdown when Greg accidentally deleted his whole database, months of work dissolved. Gareth nests under a table till he’s signed off. And Shelley disabled and claiming a desk whilst most have to hot-desk. These offstage characters aren’t just backdrop. It’s a tightly written piece altogether.
Having started predictably, Foyster introduces more challenges for Penny. Greg wishes her to make study of all data, create a massive spread sheet she foists on poor Rob, but after much effort doesn’t want to see the power-point presentation. He’s under stress and various threats from Andy the director. But Penny’s determined. Now it’s Greg’s turn to dilate his expression.
All this has subtly changed Penny. There are avenues here. Rob fees she’s disappearing. Will she go the way of Gareth? But is she a corporate ghost soul? Which is the true Penny? And how will Shelley feature? There aren’t many choices for Foyster to take but he manages an elegant one.
This play’s perennially topical and has further potential. Though the volte-faces are satisfying, I’d like to have seen Bill’s apparent fantasias resolved – there’s room for those here too. I feel too the end’s a little neat but understand Foyster’s rationale and his careful shift of Penny’s position, from someone who cares nothing to someone who might buy up the dim blue skies of corporate life.
Smyth’s insecurity underneath his pumping confidence, Scales’ hurt decency underneath his own raconteur’s emptiness, Lovett’s own hurt and increasingly bewildered sense of loss all support Newton Mountney’s excellent performance. Moving from sardonic arty outsider to something a little different, with a command of jargon and figures, she never loses Penny’s core drive.
But Newton Mountney also shows how addiction to project deadlines can suck you in; can hijack and flaw people’s energies like body-snatchers; how the world of work canalises all the best in you, and in many cases spits you out husked. There’s a very faint kinship with Mike Bartlett’s savage corporate dystopia Contractions, but this is in essence a play where Penny holds most of her own cards, to play as she chooses.
Even if one or two plot-points are predictable (but others not at all ), this is a tightly-written, cleverly-plotted and thoroughly well-acted short play. The language too ramps up as the work proceeds and deploys all those deadly meta-languages you might have heard passing certain doors. Many arts-driven people forced into the corporate world might well see this play answers their condition like few others.