Cloud Nine

Thu 26th – Sat 28th April 2012

reviews

Hannah Buckley

at 09:08 on 27th Apr 2012

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I came with an open mind to ‘Cloud Nine’, only half believing it would be the most outrageous thing I have seen in Durham. Well, after sitting through it, I now believe it is. The ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ tickets were a nice touch, immediately setting the scene for what was about to come.

The lighting was well done throughout the play, for it helped bring a dramatic beginning to the start and to create variation between scenes, as well as putting the audience's focus on certain characters onstage. The sound effects are to be commended too, which were fitting throughout. I especially loved the pomp and circumstance during the interval, reinforcing the ‘think of England’ patriotism present in the first act. There was a good use of space, for the actors did not just limit themselves to the stage but used the whole theatre. I particularly liked the use of the stars on the assembly rooms’ ceiling. The use of props was also good; preventing the play from being static, and the characters used them well. I wasn’t, however, too sure on the singing. It would have been a brilliant way to start the play if the characters were just a bit more audible. It came across that they were not confident with the song, and some looked as if they weren’t too sure on the words.

This was a shame, but the acting did more than make up for this. Before I talk about this though, I think it is worth me explaining what the play is exactly about. 'Cloud Nine' is split into two acts; the first is about a Victorian family living in colonial Africa and the second a group of people in a London park in 1979. Both acts are filled with plenty of sexual taboos, and the second half displays the loosening of the sexual restrictions of Victorian ideology in the 1970s. In the second act, different characters are played by the same actors, but it is only supposed to be 25 years after the events in the first half. I found this somewhat confusing at first, and I think it is worth knowing this before you watch the play just so it is easier to understand what is going on.

Idgie Beau, however, certainly more than make up for this. Beau played Maud in the first half, the mother-in-law of the Victorian family. There were strong resemblances to Queen Victoria, and although Maud had nothing too risky in the play Beau did an excellent job of playing her judgemental and motherly role throughout the act, as well as keeping the scenes lively and flowing. In the second half Beau played Betty, 25 years after her role as wife and mother in the Victorian family. Betty wears the Maggie Thatcher bow suggesting connections to her, and is shown now to have the liberty to leave her husband. Beau takes that outrageousness to a new level when she acts out and describes masturbation onstage.

Edward (Emily Winter) is Betty’s son, and in the first half we see a big controversy over him playing with his sister Victoria’s doll. The plot thickens as we find out his ‘uncle Harry’ has been grooming the boy, yet rather than being a sad thing Winter cleverly turns it around so that the immaturity of Edward makes the scenes funny. The standing joke about the Victorian men trying to hide their erections throughout the act never failed to inspire laughter. Winter played Victoria in the second half, a woman in an unhappy marriage in which the husband feels threatened by her leaving to Manchester for a job and her friend Lin (Connie Bryne-Shore). This demonstrated the balance between celebrating new freedoms and knowing that a more flexible society is no guarantee of happiness.

Connie Byrne-Shore was phenomenal in the first half. She played both the governess Ellen and Mrs Saunders, a neighbour to the family. The two characters are completely different; Ellen is a shy lesbian who loves Betty the wife of the family and Mrs Saunders is a flirty, radical woman living on her own who is adored by Clive (Sam Matthey). Bryne-Shore plays these so well and so differently its not hard to think that they were played by two different people. Again, the difficulty of playing a very outrageous scene on stage was done in a shocking yet comical way and I do believe no one in the audience was expecting it at all.

All the other actors are to be commended too, all were very clear and owned the stage whilst they spoke. Sam Matthey knows how to play the dominant man Clive but also the comical silly girl Cathy, and Michael Huband played a splendid Betty before playing the gay gardener Edward. Lyle Bushe also was brilliant at playing Harry, bringing in the awkwardness of his sexuality in society as a comical feature, as well as making the unhappy forced marriage funny too.

However, the problem the play has is its story-line. I found the first half too long. I enjoyed every minute of it, but the second half wasn’t as engaging or as well written, which spoilt the play for me because I became very conscious of the time. The production team, from the lighting to the actors, did as well as they could to make this play a hit. It portrays interesting points, has some outrageous scenes, has brilliant acting and it is comical, but the story-line was confusing and un-engaging in the second half, and for this reason I wouldn’t rush to go and see it again.

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Ettie Bailey-King

at 10:24 on 27th Apr 2012

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‘Cloud 9’ is a play obsessed with doubling: it pairs the suppressed instincts within us with the external masks that we are forced to wear, the words that we wish we could say with the ones that we learn to speak. It bubbles with sexual tension and dark humour – one is never very far away from the other in this play – and serves up searing social commentary alongside the lightest of humour. With its carnivalesque combination of sexual and political critique, Churchill’s play might easily be tough going. Yet in the hands of ‘Hill College Theatre Company’ (HCTC), it is a triumph.

Its format mirrors its dual concerns, with two acts split between Victorian colonial Africa and Britain in 1979. Many of the characters are men played by women, or women played by men, and the entire cast swaps characters in the second act. Such devices seem to multiply the potential for dramatic failure- it would be all too easy to play the cross-dressing characters for an easy laugh, or for the dreamlike second act to descend into farce.

The crucial challenge of this play is to keep Caryl Churchill’s text ‘alive’. With its exhausting shifts in register, from surreal comedy one moment to dark tragic melancholy the next, the cast need to be electric. Otherwise, frothy jokes and dark revelations alike will fall flat. Though the play sings with extraordinary, explosive dialogue, it is an unforgiving script. Without tremendously talented actors, comic timing and real sensitivity to the play’s nuances, this play easily translates itself into a carnival of confusion. Lucky, then, that the cast seemed so effortlessly to evade any such pitfalls.

The acting is consistently authoritative, and crucial to establishing a realist mode from the outset. The earliest scenes stand in contrast to the later ones, as characters appear on stage and speak in verse about their constructed identities. Clive’s wife Betty, for instance, declares sweetly, ‘I am man’s creation…what men want is what I want to be’ while the African servant Joshua echoes this with ‘what white men want, I dearly want to be’. That Betty is played by a man and Joshua by a white man might be jarring, funny, or confusing. Yet in the hands of these talented actors, it comes to stand quite simply for the artifice of their identities. Switching seamlessly into characters of different genders and races in the second act, they highlight the sense in which we do not wear our clothes so much as our clothes wear us; that we perform ourselves in reality exactly as we do on stage.

It is the little touches that illustrate how talented this cast are – Sam Matthey’s razor-sharp movements playing the excitable little girl Kathy, or Idgie Beau’s pitch-perfect evocation of the shrill mother-in-law Maud – these two elicit the heartiest chuckles from the audience, turning a long and frequently challenging play into an absolute joy to behold.

From the opening scene, HCTC’s stripped-back staging brilliantly evokes the mind-set of colonial British Africa. The parlour is a cauldron of tension, evoked by a rather spare set – a chaise longue, footstool, table and chairs. Without ever seeing dense upholstery or lace doilies, one somehow senses the oppressive trappings of a world obsessed with ‘family’ and ‘the empire’.

The play is perhaps at its finest when evoking missed moments. Characters often struggle desperately to communicate, and seem weighed down by restrictive social conventions or by the very texture of the language they are trapped inside. Betty (Michael Huband) and Ellen (Connie Byrne-Shore) dance around the topic of Ellen’s suppressed lesbianism in a glorious pairing of frustrated desires. Evoking both the pathos and the comedy of this scene is a hard task, yet the pair do so with ease.

The language of high drama and bourgeois preoccupations coalesce brilliantly in Act One. Clive’s frantic exclamation as he attempts to seduce Mrs Saunders, ‘You’ll be shot with poisonous arrows! You’ll miss the picnic!’ brilliantly satirises the white male colonial project. Caught between the twin images of savage warfare and scones, the play takes us out of its historical contexts and appears quite timeless. In the lonely African bush, Betty sighs ‘can’t we ever be alone?’, for instance, or the miserable Bagley mutters, ‘happiest day of my life’ as he weds, his mouth set in a perfect horizontal line of despondence. Shot through with emotional credibility, these moments stand out as real, affecting and memorable. The easy marriage of humour and pathos achieved in these performances simply has to be seen to be believed.

In Act Two, one hundred years pass in history and only twenty five in the lives of the cast. Betty leaves her husband and the young Edward has turned into all that his parents dreaded: a homosexual gardener. Watching a stage hand delicately strew litter on the grass, followed by a BBC voiceover concerning troops killed in Belfast, the audience is violently transported into another era. The combination of brown corduroy and shirts so densely-patterned they hurt your eyes offers a neat pastiche of Britain in the late seventies.

The switch-over between characters (with the Betty of Act One playing her own son Edward; the Maud of Act One turning into her own daughter Betty) is played for all its extraordinary and suggestive potential. The Oedipal sexual currents between Betty and Edward, for instance, or the relief that male-dominated Betty is finally – in outward form at least – embodied as a woman, characterise Act Two as a deeply provocative one.

In moments of clarity, lines such as Martin’s, that ‘life nowadays is insecure’ seem to crystallise this transition: from the rigid social conventions of the Victorian, to the riotous freedoms of ‘modern’ Britain – symbolised perhaps rather weakly by a lesbian mother and a gay couple.

Yet once again it is the splendid acting which illuminates what might otherwise be too broad-brush a depiction of supposed sexual liberation. Lynn (Connie Byrne-Shore) lights up the second act with deadpan lines such as ‘you can’t separate fucking and economics’, while the aged Betty (now played by Idgie Beau, her own mother from act one) wins the unusual acclaim of making an orgasm on a park bench the defining moment of the whole play.

By uniting her own failure to ‘like women’ even though she is herself one, her inability to feel she is ‘really there’ without a man to define her, and her creeping recognition that her children sleep with people of both sexes, Betty’s orgasm is a joyful moment of emancipation. Yet the play stops short of suggesting that gender roles have become simple or free, in Churchill’s ‘70s Britain just as any other period. Churchill’s play seems to call – as Victoria (Emily Winter) does, in a drunken ‘ ceremony to the Goddess’ for the characters in the play, for the audience and for society to ‘Make us the women we can’t be! Give us the history we can’t have!’ Interrogating the audience and their own understanding of the world, ‘Cloud 9’ is both a challenge and a delight.

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