The Almeida describes Caryl Churchill’s 1978 play as being about ‘sex, work, mothers, Africa, power, children, grandmothers, politics, money, Queen Victoria and sex’. Of those, sex is the prevailing element in Thea Sharrock’s entertaining, funny, bizarre and sometimes surprising production at the Islington theatre. Caroline Bishop was at the first night…
Cloud Nine is split into two distinct acts: the first is a satire on repressed sexuality and hypocrisy in colonial Africa in Victorian times; the second comments on the no-longer repressed but just as confused nature of sexuality in 1970s London. The seven-strong cast share the multiple characters, amplifying the sexual confusion with cross-dressing.
Act One opens in an indeterminate country in Africa, the home of British upper-class colonial family Clive, wife Betty, their children Edward and Victoria, governess Lin and grandmother Victoria. While the English army keeps the locals cruelly in check, the family’s main preoccupation is their own indulgences, and each simmers with a repressed sexuality under their veneer of propriety. Head of the family Clive (James Fleet) is sleeping with feisty neighbour Mrs Scanlon; Betty (a hilarious parody of clipped Victorian femininity by Bo Paraj) is in a head-spin of ardour after an illicit kiss with Clive’s strapping friend Harry Bagley (Tobias Menzies), who is turn a closeted homosexual presenting a testosterone-fuelled, crocodile-wrestling image of himself while having his way with servant Joshua and hyperactive young son Edward (Nicola Walker). The cast go to town with Churchill’s funny script, portraying the hypocrisy of Victorians and colonialists, as both their sexual passions and the dire actions of the English abroad are pushed under the carpet.
Act Two sees the characters 25 years later, but, in a device which makes the two settings more extreme, it is 1979. In this post-sexual liberation era Edward is openly gay, Betty has the confidence to leave Clive and masturbate for the first time since she was a child, and Victoria (the younger) can experiment with her sexuality with the understanding of her husband, but all the characters still seem just as confused as their previous incarnations.
Sharrock’s production is a fast-paced orgy of intentional confusion, in which the cast’s finely tuned character-swapping and cross-dressing link the two eras as well as providing much humour. Fleet in Act Two playing toddler Cathy – with pink dress, hair bow and moustache – is certainly bizarre, but strangely believable.
Cloud Nine plays until 8 December.