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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida

By Matt Wolf

  Cast from Cloud Nine/Ph: Tristram Kenton

Is Cloud Nine the most formally adventurous major play of the last - oh, shall we say 30 years? One would be tempted to argue as much were it not for, among many others, Top Girls, A Number, Far Away, and Blue Heart, all of which share one abiding, unshakeable characteristic: they have sprung from the ceaselessly fertile head of Caryl Churchill, that rare dramatist who continues to go her own singular way with scant regard for a marketplace that she has never seen it as her duty to serve. (She some time ago announced that she was finished with interviews, announcing that they served little purpose - and who can blame her?) The fact is, Churchill's work isn't readily summed up in sound bites or even a critical precis: the plays have to be experienced first-hand, which is only the first reason why one welcomes Thea Sharrock's new Almeida Theatre revival of Churchill's 1979 script, which seems more wondrous, funny, and moving on every encounter with it.

To this day, I remember the ceaseless fizz of Tommy Tune's Off Broadway premiere of the play, at a theater in a Greenwich Village whose streets were spilling over with American equivalents of the motley potpourri of characters captured in the play. Sharrock takes a rather more measured approach, and she hasn't quite tapped into the inordinate sense of longing and loss that underpinned the Old Vic's quite extraordinary, under-appreciated staging of this play a decade ago. But Sharrock's expert company abundantly compensates for a dull, circular set from Peter McKintosh that doesn't pick up on the invention in the text, leaving the company to flesh out pretty much their entire world with scant visual assist. And what a world this play puts forth.

The first act, you may remember, takes us to a colonial outpost in Victorian-era Africa, where a snappish James Fleet presides over a family only mildly less dysfunctional than the empire whose best interests (however dubious they may be) he is haplessly representing overseas. The casting breakdown demands that Betty, the demure wife of Fleet's blustery Clive, is played by the most softly spoken of men (in this case, a fluttery Bo Poraj, triumphing over the occasional line glitch on opening night). The local black servant, Joshua, is at the same time played by the same white actor, Mark Letheren, who doubles in the second act as the gay bit-of-rough lover to Poraj, this time playing the effete son of the same character he played in the first act, Betty herself having morphed into an outspoken, poshly accented Nicola Walker, who may be proper but isn't above limning the joys of masturbation.

Sharrock's company really does well by material that, for instance, asks the expert Sophie Stanton to essay three roles, including a family governess, and, later, a single mother in a London park ca 1979. Her tearaway daughter is played after the intermission by an often supine James Fleet in a dizzying theatrical stew that throws issues of age, race, and sexual identity tantalizingly up for grabs. One is aware this time around of genuine affinities between this play and Churchill's Top Girls, whose second act keeps much the same lingeringly mournful beat. (One could argue that Cloud Nine, though, takes a rather more forgiving view of its characters.)

You have to love a company that doesn't blink faced with assignments that must make most texts seem like playtime by comparison. I loved Tobias Menzies in act one as a stern-faced Englishman abroad with the hots for almost everyone, and he's great again in the second act playing the novelist husband<


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