“You can’t separate fucking and economics.” Victoria’s feminist riposte to her girlfriend’s lack of analysis is a joke at the expense of the character’s earnestness. At the same time, it perfectly encapsulates the themes coursing through Caryl Churchill’s 1979 theatrical dazzler, “Cloud Nine.” Not since Oscar Wilde had a playwright been so simultaneously funny and sophisticated about sexual politics. But the play’s power is in the depth and pain of its subtext, most of which is barely disinterred in Thea Sharrock’s superficial revival.
More than most plays, this is a game of two halves. The first half in colonial Africa examines the roles and rules ruthlessly imposed by a white man upon his Victorian family and the natives he commandeers and dominates.
Churchill then pulls off a structural coup. The second act fast-forwards to the supposed sexual freedoms of 1979 but her characters have only aged 25 years.
Sharrock keeps the first act laughs coming by pushing her cross-gender cast actors toward bombast with comically strangulated vowels and cut-glass accents. Yet with everyone constantly barking out one-liners, the act is reduced to a one-note satire on class. Amusing though that is, it’s less than half the story. Cunningly contrasted angles on sexual politics are flattened out, and the characters’ painful undertow is barely examined.
Some of the actors break through. Tobias Menzies is remarkably subtle as Harry Bagley, the gung-ho, intrepid explorer whose public persona is at war with his hush-hush homosexuality. Bagley is not the richest role in the play, but Menzies brings out gravitas beneath the comedy by showing the pain and strain of Harry’s position.
Nicola Walker’s Edward also allows auds to see the confusion underpinning the behavior of a boy who cannot live up to his father’s (double) standards.
Despite lighting designer Peter Mumford’s lush sunsets and portentous dark nights, Sharrock’s unvarying mood fails to build the requisite tension. It’s as if the play were merely a series of linked sketches. That would explain why almost every scene is played at the same dramatic pitch.
Yet part of the first act’s comedy stems from the family willfully ignoring the native uprising that threatens them. When the black house-servant climactically trains his gun on them, it should produce a horrible sense of inevitability. Seeming to arise from nowhere here, the moment goes for nothing.
The second act is slightly stronger because Sharrock is largely relieved of the responsibility of maintaining a “period” style. She’s helped enormously by Peter McKintosh’s costumes, which are clearly of the 1970s without underlining the fact. That allows the feminist and gay ideologies to seem intriguingly up-to-date.
More relaxed acting means that the web of relationships at last becomes touching. Sophie Stanton nicely underplays lesbian mother Lin who struggles with her loud-mouthed daughter Cathy (James Fleet) and a series of relationships.
But even here Sharrock overplays her hand, pushing Betty, the play’s most sympathetic character, to the edge of upper-middle-class stereotype.
Almost three decades on, the play’s groundbreaking casting conceit and time-traveling characterization remain audacious. That Churchill tethered those devices to comic political writing of shocking tenderness is what makes “Cloud Nine” so effective. Sadly, this only rarely affecting revival barely scratches the play’s surface.