Anyone with little more than a CSE (explanatory note to the youth of today: that’s what you would know as an A Grade A Level) knowledge of the West End Whingers’ predilections and prejudices will know that the duo take a very dim view indeed of playwright Caryl Churchill.
This stance is based almost entirely on having endured Drunk Enough To Say I Love You…? at the Royal Court three years ago.
Well, firstly, of course, the Whingers are always seeking to better themselves and what does not kill them can only make them stronger (although each reports having felt much weaker on emerging from their Caryl Churchill experiences).
But more interestingly, the director Jamie Honeybourne shares his surname with the village next to the one in which Andrew’s paternal grandparents lived and which also boasts one of England’s top maximum security prisons: Long Lartin.
Long Lartin offers prisoners “a range of vocational training opportunities including a woodcraft training area, bricklaying, barbering, industrial cleaning, laundry and painting and decorating. … A popular gymnasium, which has been extended, offers a range of recreational facilities as well as accredited courses” and it was of this idyllic life that the Whingers dreamed as they sat entombed in the Union Theatre last night.
Even the furniture was against us. Phil famously has an almost pathological aversion to on-stage park benches and this production of Cloud Nine features not one but two. How the budget stretched to it is beyond belief and sadly the play never really stood a chance.
Here’s the gist in a nutshell via Wikipedia:
Act 1 is set in British colonial Africa in Victorian times, and Act 2 is set in a London park in 1979. However, between the acts only twenty-five years pass for the characters. Each actor plays one role in Act 1 and a different role in Act 2 – the characters who appear in both acts are played by different actors in the first and second. Act 1 parodies the conventional comedy genre and satirizes Victorian society and colonialism. Act 2 shows what could happen when the restrictions of both the genre of comedy and Victorian ideology are loosened in the more permissive 1970s.
The play uses controversial portrayals of sexuality and obscene language and establishes a parallel between colonial and sexual oppression. Its humour depends on incongruity and the carnivalesque, and helps to convey Churchill’s political message about accepting people who are different and not dominating them or forcing them into particular social roles.
We can only report that parody of the conventional comedy genre and satirization of Victorian society outstays its welcome very rapidly indeed and had the Whingers longing for genuine comedy genre and authentic Victorian society.
Putting the play to one side for the moment, the evening was not without its charms. Alan Gibbons (invisible on Google) creates an enjoyably playful and amusing Betty in the colonial first act (it comes as no surprise that his credits list him as a stand-up and Pantomime Dame). And Phil found Andrew Obeney‘s Clive helped liven up the proceedings though when the actor plays Cathy, a young girl, in next act he’s saddled with a costume reminding Phil of one of David Walliams’ more extreme characters.
But excitingly as ersatz Simon Cowells and Amanda Holdens the Whingers did again get to witness a new (to them) talent which is bad news for Jennifer Bryden (right) as a blessing from the Whingers usually proves to be the kiss of death to an otherwise promising career. Both Whingers came out of the Union simultaneously babbling about her performance – not as the irritating child Edward in the first act (although she’s fine there) – but as the second act Betty. Her portrayal of the Thatcheresque mother (complete with Thatcher pussy-bow) adjusting to her new life as a divorcee was superb, producing the only truly mesmerising and moving moments in the play.
But mostly the Whingers just sat yearning for a bit of wit. Ms Churchill is proof that satire need not be biting. There was the occasional joke although these seemed almost by accident rather than design and were probably mainly due to the delivery of the performers. Most of Cloud Nine is duller than a Long Lartin cafeteria knife and if it has more of a point it was lost on the Whingers.
The programme mentions thanks to Deborah Kerr which intrigued the Whingers. Did the director study her performance in The King and I to get a feel of starchy Victorian manners? Or was she perhaps related to Gavin Kerr who plays Joshua and Gerry? Had we hung around in the bar afterwards we might have found out but we didn’t. That’s how weak we were feeling.