(Guest review courtesy of Elizabeth Baxter-Williams.)
I don’t care if it makes me sound like a drama teacher. I like Caryl Churchill. Her dialogue sparkles, especially when she’s putting words in the mouths of children. In short, she’s a good play-write, who cares that she’s not particularly in vogue?
So it was with lightness in my step that I arrived at the Union Theatre, just the wrong side of punctual, to see a Fandango’s 30th Anniversary production of Cloud 9, Churchill’s play about gender, sexuality and the structures of society.
The space we are in is just what you would expect: a small black studio with a minimum of clutter which is perfectly sized for the cast of seven. The audience is not quite in the round but on three sides, a fact which seems to have largely been ignored in blocking. Despite this, the direction is solid, and the first act flows wonderfully.
We are in colonial Africa, and the natives are, as it were, revolting. Mrs Saunders, a widow, has sought refuge from the rioting in the home of a British colonial Administrator, Clive, his family and staff. They are soon joined by an explorer named Harry Bagley. What follows is nothing short of a romp. While the head of the household Clive embodies colonialism and the values it entails, his wife Betty, played excellently in both acts by Alan Gibbons and Jennifer Bryden respectively, is the epitome, outwardly, of the perfect Victorian wife. We explore the relationships of the characters and glimpse what it be a sexual being in an era of oppression and repression.
Jamie Honeybourne’s directing is subtle but smart, aside from the aforementioned blocking issues. The comedy is gentle and enjoyable but ultimately the play has lost its shocking edge.
Act two benefits from a gin and tonic in the interval. Though set in 1979, only twenty-five years have passed for our characters. Grown up, and before a very different socio-political backdrop, each role is now played by a different member of the cast. Characterisation in the second act is patchy though, and while the cast do pull it together the transition seems a little forced. There is, however, one stand out performance: Jennifer Bryden is truly wonderful. I cannot fault her sweet portrayal of young Edward in the first act nor her switch to playing Betty in act two. She plays both roles with deep empathy and shines among the otherwise variable cast. Anthony Obeney too is excellent in his playing of both Cathy and Clive, but Bryden’s perfect handling of the act two monologue on the discovery of masturbation just gives her the edge.
It is a shame that Cloud 9 isn’t quite relevant in this age of civil partnerships and widespread polyamory. If you are a Churchill fan, and there must be at least one more out there, Cloud 9 is worth the perfectly reasonable ticket price. For Churchill virgins too, it is a good introduction. But for those who have grown weary of her very personal style, well, Cloud 9 won’t reverse your opinion.
(This guest review is for the performance that took place on 4th September. Performances continue Tues-Sat until 26th September, 2009. For an alternate view, please see the West End Whingers.)