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The art of re-invention

PUBLISHED: 16:57 16 September 2009 | UPDATED: 17:24 16 August 2010

ANGUISH: Alan Gibbons and Sophie Holland in Cloud Nine.

ANGUISH: Alan Gibbons and Sophie Holland in Cloud Nine.

CLOUD Nine is possibly Caryl Churchill s most popular play, it is certainly her most accessible and inviting, writes Edward Martyn.

CLOUD Nine is possibly Caryl Churchill's most popular play, it is certainly her most accessible and inviting, writes Edward Martyn.

Jamie Honeybourne has directed this production with flair and coaxed the best out of his young cast. His choice of incidental music is the most evocative I have experienced recently and shows just how much it can add to a play.

Set in darkest Africa (Or it could be the far east) the natives are restless and Clive, the Victorian government officer in charge, is trying to bring up his family in the good old English way whilst hoping they are not all murdered in their beds.

His native manservant Joshua is a servant of two masters, for whilst seeming to be slavishly obedient to Clive and spying on the family to demonstrate his usefulness, he coldly rejects his hostile native friends, but finally reverts to type and turns on his master in a bloody finale to act one.

The characters are deliberately and deliciously stereotyped, with Alan Gibbons giving a sly and provocative edge to Betty, the archetypal upper-class woman trapped in a loveless marriage and dying for some outlet to her frustrations. Her attempts to conduct an affair with the explorer Harry Bagley (Gareth Clarke) are frustrated by his homosexual dalliance with the precocious young son of the family, Edward (Jennifer Bryden) whose gender-bending antics give an added sexual charge to their illicit boy-scout couplings.

In his books, Somerset Maugham revealed the sexual aberrations of the empire builders, but even he would have been shocked by the sheer number of liaisons amongst this family and their servants; forget speed-dating, this is speed-mating in the heat of the jungle.

Andrew Obeney as Clive seems a trifle unsure of his control over events and needs to develop the traditional stiff upper lip to go with the other stiffness which is bothering his trousers and unsettling his wife, whilst Sophie Holland as Mrs. Saunders is delightful as the young widow with plenty of sexual energy to go with her forthright opinions, no wonder Clive finds her more exciting than the dutiful Betty.

Act two is set in a park in 1979 and the remaining members of the family are coming to terms with the complexes their strange upbringing has foisted them with. Jennifer Bryden is brilliant as the aging but effervescent Betty, whose widowhood has given her a whole new perspective on life and sex which she is quite happy to share with us.

Homosexuality is now legal, but the now grown-up Edward (Alan Gibbons) is finding relationships are no easier because of this, and Victoria (Sophie Holland) the young daughter of the Victorian family, is now confused about her bi-sexuality and how it will affect her life.

A vast union jack is painted on the back wall and we are constantly reminded of how our lives have been shaped by the values superimposed on us by our colonial role, but this imaginative and cathartic play leaves us happy and glorious about our ability to re-invent ourselves in the midst of our rapidly changing nation.

* Cloud Nine is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union St. SE1 0LX until September 26, call the box office on 020 7261 9876. Tickets are £10 - £13

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