Reviewer: Leon Trayman
Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine discusses the complexities and proclivities of human sexuality in both the repressed Victorian and relatively liberated 1970s. The production comes almost exactly thirty years after Churchill wrote the piece and it appears to be no less convoluted as it is was then…
Act One opens on a Victorian colonial family living in the wiles of Africa, complete with a black manservant, Joshua (played by the strikingly Caucasian Gavin Kerr) and a monarchical costumed disapproving grandmother. The family unit is also comprised of an awkward governess, Ellen (Sophie Holland), sexually confused (and we later discover abused) son, Edward and the lustful mother, Betty (played by Jennifer Bryden and Alan Gibbons respectively). Clive, the family patriarch (Andrew Obeney) and the infant daughter Victoria represented by a calico mannequin.
The cross-gendered casting of the family characters is an interesting choice not least as it adds an extra layer of complexity to the already intricate relationships onstage. Sophie Holland also has to play the predatory neighbour, Mrs. Saunders and frequently swaps between Ellen’s Scottish brogue and plain base costume, and Saunders’ clipped RP, red jacket and ever-present riding crop. Churchill uses Mrs. Saunders to provide the facet of women’s liberation by entangling her in an affair with Clive and is highlighted with the juxtaposition of Betty’s lustful fantasies consisting of little more than the brush of a hand and a peck on the cheek from her husbands strapping explorer friend, Harry Bagley (Gareth Clarke).
Betty is incapable of acting effectively on her urges and instead languishes in her imagined Mills and Boon romance, fully expecting to be pounced upon by the aforementioned Bagley as she reads poetry on the veranda! Bagley arrives back in ‘civilized’ company having exiled himself in the wilderness hiding from his not only socially unacceptable, but at the time illegal homosexual urges. This would be a sad and poignant indictment of the lives of many gay men if it weren’t for the major plot-point of his relationship with the family’s young son Edward, who whilst clearly confused about himself, has fallen in love with Bagley, having found in him the affection and sexual gratification he so eagerly sought.
This relationship is never discovered by the family, but Bagley’s sexuality is brought clearly to our attention first when he asks Joshua if he wants to ‘go into the stables and f**k’, and later when he misreads the situation with Clive, and kisses him. Meanwhile the governess Ellen declares her love for the mother of the family Betty… Act Two is set in a London park in 1979, although Churchill insists that for the characters of Victoria, Edward and Betty it is only twenty five years later.
This incongruity of time is confusing as the only obvious reason behind it seems to be to illustrate the impact of social acceptance on the comfort of people who are not in a heterosexual monogamous relations. The politics of which would be easier to grasp (if that indeed is the main message of the play) without the niggling though in the back of one’s mind that these are the same characters a few years older and magically transported several decades into the future.
The director, Jamie Honeybourne again chooses to cast cross-gender with the somewhat jarring appearance of Andrew Obeney as the pre-pubescent Cathy dressed in a costume not dissimilar to something you might expect to find David Walliams’ Little Britain character Anne in, complete a goatee.
The actors all give good performances in the main, but some seem more at ease with one act’s character(s) than the other. Notably, Jennifer Bryden’s Betty in Act Two is wonderfully wide-eyed with her new found freedom (having left her husband) and even goes so far as to attempt to pick up a man in a park! Sophie Holland also seems happier as Victoria in Act Two, whilst Andrew Obeney give a more sophisticated father than little girl. By contrast, Alan Gibbons seems equally at home in both his Act Two checked shirt and comfy trousers as he does in a Victorian frock and diamante earrings! Relationships between men and men, women and women, men and women, boys and their mothers and girls and their mothers all intermingle throughout this play and leave me thinking ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’
Cloud Nine runs at the Union theare until 26th Sept