Cloud Nine

Among theatregoers, Caryl Churchill is blue touch paper. Strike a match in the vicinity of her name and there will be sparks, there will be blood. Are her plays iconoclastic, blatant or just plain hectoring? Is all that embedded feminism bracing or relentless? It’s your call. Beyond argument, though, is the sheer theatricality of her work. Churchill’s best writing belongs exclusively to the stage; remove her plays from their natural habitat and they shrivel, but treat them to a production as rich as this one and they can soar.

Thirty years ago Cloud Nine sealed Churchill’s reputation as an ‘important’ playwright, a label that characterises the admiration (rather than adulation) she has commanded ever since. This incongruous exploration of gender and sexuality has lost much of its relevance in the intervening years, and its wit is wafer-thin in places, but as an optimistic, era-defining piece it deserves this revival.

In a well constructed first act, Clive and Betty raise their children Edward and Victoria in 19th-century colonial Africa. Febrile emotions are either repressed (unhappily) or expressed (disastrously) in a ronde of frustrated miseries. The more scattergun Act Two takes place in England a century later, in 1979, although for Betty and her children only 25 years have gone by. Enlightened modern values lead these characters towards liberation and, ultimately, fulfilment.

Seven good actors play 15 or more roles. The clipped Englishman of Act One (Andrew Obeney) becomes the four-year-old Cathy of Act Two; an elderly dowager (Carol Robb) is reborn as a lesbian mother; an angry African houseboy (Gary Kerr) becomes a promiscuous gay man. Actors exchange gender, colour and age with relish. There are dazzling turns from Sophie Holland in three varied roles, and from Alan Gibbons and Jennifer Bryden who share and swap the mother-and-son duo of Betty and Edward. The late-flowering self-discovery of Bryden’s Thatcher-clone Betty, hilarious and touching, will linger long in the memory.

Jamie Honeybourne’s unfussy staging allows the text to make its own impression, and his direction is beautifully paced to bring out the play’s comedy and poignancy. It is all of a piece with the restrained décor, costume and lighting, to say nothing of the telling musical interludes. As an apt thematic backdrop, the auditorium’s rear wall is dominated throughout by a very pink, pastel-hued Union Jack. It’s a confident visual splash, typical of many in this fine production.