Thea Sharrock’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s politically and sexually-charged 1979 classic Cloud Nine opened last week (31 October 2007, previews from 25 October) at the Almeida Theatre where it runs until to 8 December, with a cast led by James Fleet and Tobias Menzies (See 1st Night Photos, 2 Nov 2007).

Set in both colonial Africa and 1970s Britain, Churchill’s role-swapping and cross-gender cast play examines relationships – between women and men, men and men, women and women. According to promotional material, it’s about “work, mothers, Africa, power, children, grandmothers, politics, money, Queen Victoria and sex”.

Fleet (who plays Clive/Cathy) and Menzies (Harry Bagley/Martin) are joined in the cast by Mark Letheren (Joshua/Gerry), Bo Poraj (Betty/Edward), Joanna Scanlan (Maud/Victoria), Sophie Stanton (Ellen/Mrs Saunders/Lin) and Nicola Walker (Edward/Betty). The production is designed by Peter McKintosh, with lighting by Peter Mumford and sound by Gregory Clarke.

While first night critics all acknowledged Cloud Nine’s deserved reputation as a ground-breaking piece of 1970s theatre, they were divided as to whether it has stood the test of time nearly 30 years on. Some felt that Thea Sharrock’s “smart” and “uncomplicated” revival successfully demonstrates that Churchill’s play is as “provocative” as ever, but others couldn’t see “what all the fuss was about”. There was widespread appreciation of the “beautifully acted” ensemble performances, with particular praise for James Fleet, Tobias Menzies and Nicola Walker.

  • Michael Coveney on (four stars) - “Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play … has acquired over the years an almost unassailable reputation as the outstanding theatre piece of its time on that subject. Thea Sharrock’s revival at the Almeida does little to dent that reputation. What you do feel watching it after so long a time is how formally and structurally unadventurous most contemporary playwriting is … The only cross-playing in the second act is that of Cathy, a grumpy self-centred child whom James Fleet reveals as the ridiculous Clive reincarnate. The play resounds with such witty echoes and carefully finessed acting. And it all looks very striking, too, on Peter McKintosh’s raised disc of a stage with evocative, silhouetted backgrounds in Peter Mumford’s lighting and judiciously plotted sound effects by Gregory Clarke.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “The first half, dealing with sexual imperialism in some 19th-century colonial outpost, proves vibrantly funny. Even if there are occasional echoes of Round the Horne parody, there is still a wicked pleasure in watching James Fleet's patriarch Clive banging on about the way women are ‘dark like this continent, mysterious’ … The difficulties start with the play's second half. In one way, it shows Churchill's formal ingenuity in that, while setting the action in a London park in the late 1970s, it shows several of the first-act characters 25 years on. The submissive colonial wife has now become a liberated senior citizen while her gay grandson is living in a cosy ménage à trois with a pair of lesbian mothers. Churchill is clearly showing how, in the course of a century, sexual shackles were profitably loosened. But she still ducks the really difficult questions. Is the extended, non-nuclear family any better than the one it replaced? And what impact does gay parenting have on the children themselves? Churchill seems uneasily torn between celebrating our new freedoms and suggesting that our more flexible moral code is no guarantee of happiness. Even if I find the play evasive, it yields rich opportunities for actors … The play is full of suggestive contrasts and parallels but leaves many of its ideas about moral progress unresolved.”

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph - “Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine is the cleverest, drollest, most sexily experimental exercise in ‘compare and contrast’ that British theatre has probably ever seen. Combining a wild satire on the high noon of the Victorian empire in Africa with a semi-realist portrait of life in England at the fag-end of the 1970s, when it was first staged, the play not only requires its cast to inhabit the mannerisms and attitudes of two different eras but also to run subversively counter to their own gender, age and race in some of the roles they adopt. So, in the first half, Betty, the wife of uptight colonial administrator Clive, is played by a man, their young son Edward by a woman, and their black servant Joshua by a white actor … What might sound like the most arduous kind of feminist radicalism works, as Thea Sharrock's smart revival at the Almeida amply demonstrates. It is an absolute treat on stage … If the cast can seem too restricted by Peter McKintosh's set, loosely reminiscent of a child's wooden playhouse, their performances nonetheless strike a nimble balance between serving the play's dressing-up-box frivolity and its tightly scripted wit … Two younger actors in particular make their mark. Nicola Walker shines as the subjugated young Edward … Tobias Menzies is also a tense-faced delight as Harry, adventurer and closet homosexual in Act One … The world changes totally and it changes not at all - that's the kernel of wisdom wrapped in Churchill's enduring, wholly heavenly Cloud.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “In scenes of dazzling verbal comedy, enhanced by the superlative, versatile ensemble of actors, Churchill suggests how Victorian diction was designed to hide rather than express feelings. It is the author's imaginative conceit that the second act, set in 1979 London, should be just 25 years later, with the Irish problem casting late imperial shadows. Churchill conjures a dreamy, radical sexual scenario, little helped by designer Peter McKintosh's bare, unevocative staging. Clive's unhappily married daughter Victoria falls for the lesbian Lin, while domesticity-loving gay Edward loses his boyfriend and joins the pair in an adventurous ménage à trois. Their mother, Betty, now played by a woman (a transformed Nicola Walker) as if to suggest her newly acquired self-confidence, leaves her husband and settles for an independent life. In the emotionally devastating fantasy sequence of the finale, Betty embraces and forgives the ghost of her younger self. Cloud Nine, despite Thea Sharrock's far too austere and deromanticised production, ought now to be established as one of the great psycho-sexual comedies of the 20th century.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “This is the play that established Caryl Churchill as the most imaginatively daring of our major dramatists; and, nearly 30 years after its premiere, it still seems not only remarkably inventive but as sharp about the contradictions of gender as anything that has been written since … With James Fleet exuding prim misogyny as the Queen’s representative, Bo Poraj nervily dimpling through the role of his wife, and others in topsy-turvy disarray, Thea Sharrock’s gripping production leaves you in no doubt of the gulf between moral pretension and visceral need. Likewise the second act, which involves the characters’ modern descendants, avoids caricaturing them but shows that the old problems haven’t vanished. People are less likely to judge or be judged, but they’re still unsure of their sexual identities, still floundering in their attempts to discover them, still unable to reach cloud nine. Churchill emphasises this with one piece of cross-gender casting, which means that Fleet bounces hilariously about as a girl with a love of guns and smutty rhymes. But mostly the acting is realistic … Can the intricacies of gender be summed up in terms such as ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ or even ‘man’ and ‘woman’? Churchill’s suggestion, surely as provocative now as in 1979, is that this is to ask mercury to be as rigid as steel.”

  • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “Churchill’s intent, amusingly reinforced by Thea Sharrock’s beautifully acted production, was not only to satirise gender constructs but also to suggest that sexual repression is an oppressive offshoot of patriarchy that is similar to colonial rule … What stops this from being a dry cultural studies lesson is the lavish way in which Churchill spoofs po-faced Victorian values in order to expose the hypocrisy of empire as a supposed moral backbone … Act II takes place in the 1970s … Once again, Churchill parodies the discourse of the time: this time, the so-called permissiveness of the 1970s, but on this occasion it feels like a formal exercise in identity deconstruction.”

  • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “Almost 30 years on, Churchill’s contrast of Victorian and Seventies sexuality seems as unremarkable as an Ann Summers shop or a Channel Four sex show … The message is that sex drives and destabilises empires and relationships. But today this is so uncontentious a proposition the play leaves you wondering what all the fuss was about, even while it bends over backwards to shock you. There is fun to be had, however, in Thea Sharrock’s uncomplicated revival … My favourite was Tobias Menzies, who superbly catches a sullen male liberal self-righteously maintaining his only interest is satisfying his partner. Otherwise, this is a once-radical, now-fusty museum piece.”

    - by Terri Paddock