Review – Cloud Nine, Union Theatre

Wednesday 2 September 2009



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.

So why would the Whingers elect to visit Fandango‘s production of Cloud Nine at the Union Theatre? Why?

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.

Jennifer BrydenBut 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.

Cloud Nine


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.

14 Responses to “Review – Cloud Nine, Union Theatre”

  1. Fraser Says:

    I feel the same way about Top Girls and Ice Cream. I think I am the only drama teacher/director in the world who cannae abide thon Churchill Wifie.

  2. Society Bee Says:

    I saw this at the Almeida a year or two ago. The first act was brilliant, the second act was a bit rubbish.

  3. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    I’m confused. I thought only Mark Ravenhill wrote plays.

  4. Fandango Fan Says:

    Saw the Cloud Nine show by Fandango last night. Really liked it! Great actors! Loved the two Bettys!

  5. Edward Bruce Says:

    I think you are being a bit harsh! There is some good acting (and some inaudible passages) but I agree the magic isn’t there yet. It might settle down. I think Cloud Nine needs to be acted very “straight” and with sensitivity for the humour to work.

  6. The play reads better than it performs, if that makes sense. Saw this recently and my companion for the evening nodded off during the first act, and it felt like the pacing was off: it needs to be far snappier.

  7. Waltzing Mathilda Says:

    I think i must have come the same night as Rogue Zentradi as I remember seeing a rude audience member nodding off! I, on the other hand, enjoyed it and thought it was a cracking production!

  8. […] (This guest review is for the performance that took place on 4th September. Performances continue Tues-Sat until 26th September, 2009. For an alternate view, please see the West End Whingers.) […]

  9. sandown Says:

    The reason why drama teachers like Caryl Churchill’s plays is that they are composed of a mixture of the cartoonish and the naturalistic, and hence easy for students to perform.

    In her best-known plays, some of the naturalistic material was generated by the actors themselves, during the period of improvisation which led up to the final script. Even the title of “Cloud Nine” was a term one of the actresses used, to describe orgasm.

    Also, Churchill’s plays put forward a simple-minded leftist viewpoint, which would appeal to drama teachers, particularly in the state education system.

    • London_Creeper Says:

      The name “Cloud Nine” came from a story told to the actors, Max Stafford Clark, and Caryl Churchill, from a cleaner at the rehearsal space about how she had finally found some real passion in her later years, and finally found a “cloud nine” moment.
      Churchill’s writing can sometimes be a bit workshoppy and “drama-teacher-y” but it always seems to spark debate and should’t that be what good theatre does?
      I watched this production, I enjoyed elements of it, I loved the performances, and we came away discussing what had changed since 1979 in gay rights. Bravo fandango!

  10. Ed Webb Says:

    I saw this last weekend and thought it was really good, the first act was better than the second though.

    I also did some research into Gavin Kerr, he is actually the great grandson of Deborah Kerr. Watch this space!

  11. lulu brown Says:

    I agree, the second act takes a little longer to get going than the first but I have the sneaking suspicion that this is more the fault of the writing than of Fandangos!! I enjoyed its charm and thought the cast were all great- highly recommend!

  12. g Says:

    who wrote this article?

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