Cloud Nine only slowly revels it pleasurable side, it sneaks up when you aren’t looking. Set in Victorian times in British Colonial Africa and the 1970s in London, Cloud Nine is concerned with politics, family, propriety, the British Empire and sex. I was prepared for a bit of a lecture and to learn something. I was unprepared for warmth, humor and pathos that spilled out from this show. Cloud Nine isn’t some stiff play or a preserved still life, best seen under glass. It is a heartfelt and honest; often reserved, but never stiff.
Dane Laffrey has designed the seating in the round, raised steeply like a bull-ring (much as was done for Cock – the Cockfight Play a few seasons ago). This setting punctuates the tension of the play, where characters fight, flail or fall in love in odd pairings throughout the evening. Act one takes place on a homestead in Africa in Victorian times, back when a man’s home was his castle and his family very much dependent on him. Clive and Betty have made a relatively safe home here with their two children, a nanny, Betty’s mother and their African houseboy Joshua. Their lives seem expected and practical, but all surface. A current of disorder and chaos is held at bay, but never seems far away. It seeps into the their safe harbor when they are visited by Harry Bagley, an explorer, and Mrs. Saunders a widowed neighbor.
Harry and Mrs. Saunders both trigger unexpected emotions in the family. Sexual tension arise between Clive and Mrs. Saunders and Harry and Betty, among others. Joshua struggles with his place in the household as less than the men, but more than the ladies. Betty learns that a British sense of propriety may not be enough of a shield in Africa.
A note her on the casting. The most jarring casting is (white) Sean Dugan playing a black African. Joshua is treated with the un-thinking racism of the times. Mr. Dugan does a great job in the role and if an African-American played the role, it might be even more uncomfortable. Other casting is also unusual. The role of Betty is played by (wonderfully) by (male) Chris Perfetti, and the role of young Edward is played by (female) Brooke Bloom.
Act two of Cloud Nine takes place in 1979 London, but the characters have only aged 25 years. The family has moved to London and moved apart. Edward is grown and gay. Daughter Victoria is married with a son. And wife Betty is divorcing Clive and will try living on her own. Through the lens of these family members, we watch as the British struggle with the sexual revolution, and the shifting state of public morals.
Victoria’s husband is a feminist who will try anything Victoria wants, if only she will say it. Edward is trying to recreate his idea of normality with a man that doesn’t want to settle down. And Lin is a lesbian that knows exactly what she wants. The cast has changed roles here. Brooke Bloom takes over the role of Betty and is fairly magnificent. Lucy Owen shines as Victoria. In fact the entire cast slips with ease into the new roles, the 1970s Brits are much easier and more open than the late 1800s British colonists.
What hasn’t changed is the complexity of emotions, relationships and desires. It is more acceptable to be fluid in 1979, but not any less confusing. They learn that being honest with yourself and your family is more important now than ever.
Cloud Nine is directed with a lovely touch by James Macdonald. Written 35 years ago by Caryl Churchill, it feels as fresh as if it was written yeterday. Much has changed sinceCloud Nine was first performed but honesty, in desires and relationships, has never been more important
Cloud Nine | Playwright: Caryl Churchill | Director: James Macdonald | Cast: Brooke Bloom, Sean Dugan, Lucy Owen, Chris Perfetti, John Sanders, Izzie Steele, Clarke Thorell