Caryl Churchill has long had a reputation as one of our finest and most imaginative playwrights. Her sense of adventure stretches not only to subject matter but also form, so that any play of hers will always be distinctive, challenging and thought-provoking.
She also has the ability to write scripts that seem timeless and that is certainly the case with Cloud Nine, a play devised with Joint Stock almost three decades ago.
Thea Sharrock is now a top theatre director, following recent successes with Equus and The Emperor Jones. However, she may still feel that she owes a great debt to Ms Churchill, in that her first public showcase was a well-received West End production of Top Girls, that was a reward for winning the James Menzies-Kitchin Award as most promising young director in 2000.
This play was originally developed by Max Stafford Clark in a period when Joint Stock was involved in highly experimental work that tended to involve lengthy interviews which were improvised and then turned into a script by a playwright.
This was the start of what has become Verbatim Theatre and the unusual fact in this case is that we are discovering the sexual peccadilloes of a team of actors including (Sir) Antony Sher, Miriam Margolyes and Julie Covington, all of whom contributed to the original workshop in 1978.
What they came up with though is as much an exploration of British colonialism as British sex. It is also absolutely hilarious, thanks to a tremendous script complemented by a series of impressively deadpan performances from a perfectly-drilled ensemble cast.
In an hour before the interval, Churchill plunges us into an imperial family in colonial Africa at a time during the reign of Queen Victoria when half of the world was painted red but assuredly not in a political sense. This is the stuff of much supposedly serious literature and drama lauding the British stiff upper lip and the way in which it dealt with uppity natives. However, that is not quite how it comes out on Cloud Nine.
To start with, while the characters might seem like stereotypes the actors are not, since standards are subverted in that men play women, women play men, White plays Black, one character is played by a doll and almost everybody is sexually rapacious.
The fun is derived from the contrast between the way in which we know these people ought to behave and the reality. James Fleet, perhaps the pick of the actors in both halves, partly because he has the best parts, is Clive, a man with the stiffest of upper lips not to mention lower organs.
He is waited on by his hopelessly devoted wife, Bo Poraj's rather masculine Betty; her Queen Victoria look-alike mother, Joanna Scanlan's Maud; their effeminate son Edward, Nicola Walker; and a native African servant, Joshua played by Mark Letheren with attitude and a posh accent.
To start with, after a couple of stirring martial songs, everybody behaves as one would expect. However, this family is not so much nuclear as a nuclear explosion waiting to happen, particularly when British explorer Harry Bagley (Tobias Menzies) and Sophie Stanton as both the children's Scottish governess and a feisty widow added into the mix. Suddenly, everybody is plunged into a rampant sex farce that subliminally debunks the myth of empire.
After the interval, the most significant change to Peter McKintosh's minimalist set is a lush growth of grass to inform the audience that they are on Clapham Common today (or rather 1979). There, the same characters appear 25 years on from their Victorian versions. However, in terms of social behaviour they are centuries away.
There is a parallel, in that the British colonial patriarchy is still struggling with its subjects, this time in Northern Ireland, but once again, the major driving force for each of the characters is their sexuality.
Now a single mother Lin (Stanton) tries both to entertain her infant daughter Cathy, who is hilariously played by James Fleet, while seducing straight-laced Victoria (Scanlan). Their male counterparts, Victoria's shy brother Edward (Poraj) and his promiscuous partner Gerry (Letheren), have equal and opposite problems, while the mother figure, now played by Nicola Walker has also discovered her own sexuality, albeit very late in life.
Cloud Nine is a superb satire on British attitudes, viewed 100 years apart, that impressively get its message over with a mixture of almost sarcastic humour and delicious irony. Thea Sharrock and her team are to be thanked for this well conceived and highly enjoyable revival.
Playing until 8th December
Reviewer: Philip Fisher