Reviewed: Cloud Nine
Anna Gorska reviews the controversial yet entertaining production of HCTC’s ‘Cloud Nine’…
Caryl Churchill, the woman who translated Strindberg’s ‘I pity mankind’ into ‘people are so fucked up’ is definitely one of the most contentious of modern playwrights. It is therefore no surprise that her play ‘Cloud Nine’ is considered a complex and staggering piece of theatre. The Hill College Theatre Company thus undertook a difficult task, but with an enjoyable, humorous, striking and thought-provoking effect.
With two acts, each with a running time of about an hour and a half, maintaining the audience’s attention would be a great challenge. Surprisingly, under Justin Murray’s direction, the show is entertaining throughout. Thematically, the play asks questions about ever-changing social norms, sexual expectations and gender roles. The first act, set in the Victorian era colonial Africa, presents the seemingly average family of a British colonial administrator, only to reveal that the household is a myriad of sexual confusion, suppressed emotions and uncontrolled temptations. The second act portrays the characters within a quarter of a century, even though the action itself takes place in 1970s London. The presentation of their sexual attitudes and social roles and mingles intriguingly with the action of the first act.
The variety of costumes was impressive, considering the minimalist approach to props and set. However, thanks to careful sourcing they balanced each other out rather well, putting more focus on individual characters. Credit for that must go to the producer, Zoe Ogahara. One of the most refreshing moments of the production was the use of the Assembly Rooms’ ceiling when referencing a ‘starry night’. This, as well as a generally ‘bright’ lighting design, enabled the tech directors, William Dennett and Jonathan Evans, to explore an interesting contrast to the play’s grotesquely sinister themes.
The cast's fantastic interaction was definitely a highlight of the show. All of the actors adapted exceptionally well to their character-driven dialogues and the cast delivered effectively the sharp and obscenely witty jokes, making the black humour of the play verge on the banal and tragic. Having seven actors play fifteen characters shifting between various age and sexual orientation proved simple with such a talented cast.
Especially effective was Sam Matthey’s transition between Clive and Cathy, which demonstrated his exemplary projection and skilfulness in changing the tone of his voice. In the first act he actually sounded like a middle-aged man, only to acquire a humorous high-pitched girly voice in the second act, which accounted for the audience’s streams of laughter whenever Cathy entered the stage. Idgie Broadbent-Smith’s motherly figures of Maud and Betty, along with her onstage orgasm, undeniably made her a star of the show. Her choice of the screechy voice for portraying Maud, along with a great delivery of her snappy comments ensured that every moment she spent on stage was saucy and humorous. As much as the issue of gender and sexuality was effectively conveyed by Will Downes’ Gerry and Michael Huband’s Edward, the representational portrayal of Betty, played by Huband in the first act, simply and straightforwardly questioned femininity and a woman’s role.
Connie Byrne-Shore was so convincing in her portrayal of Mrs Saunders and Ellen, that for a while I did not even realize the they were both played by the same actress. The uncanny relationship between Harry and Edward, portrayed by Lyle Bushe and Emily Winter respectively, was perfectly balanced-out thanks to Bushe’s painstakingly funny awkwardness as well as Winter’s raw and child-like surprise combined with a touching naivety.
Despite the impeccable timing of the dialogues delivered by the cast, the piece was at times pierced by a blunt silence and a questionable pace. With no particular character being a direct protagonist, rare changes in lighting and set design left the production’s dynamic in tatters. The piece was certainly not slow, only some moments sometimes seemed too trivial and did not live up to the intensity of the black humour. The actors did falter at a few insubstantial moments of the plot and after the performance I heard that some of them had forgotten a couple of their lines, but these mistakes passed generally unnoticed.
‘Cloud Nine’ is unequivocally a brave attempt at provocative theatre. Seeing Murray’s effort at making such a diverse play function as a whole is invigorating and amusing. ‘Cloud Nine’ boldly asks ‘what is freedom? Does having a choice liberate us or degrade us?’ Even though it does not fully succeed as a holistic piece, the production is saved by the diversity and dramatic skill of the cast.