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Fen / Far Away / Cloud Nine

Caryl Churchill
The Crucible, Sheffield
(2004)

Publicity image from The Crucible, Sheffield

Blame it on the heatwave which has cost West End theatres dearly of late, or Euro Fever which may even now be abating in the wake of England's two-one drubbing by France, but the reception for Cloud Nine at The Crucible, traditionally referred to by David Vine as a 'melting pot', was decidedly cool.

Banks of empty seats abounded at the matinee I went to. It was, at best, half-full. Where was everyone? Top Girls was recently voted one of the century's best plays in a prestigious poll and its author is widely regarded as one of our finest playwrights. The Independent had, only that day, singled the play, part of a mini-season at the theatre, as one of the five best plays outside of London.

Never mind; it was their loss. Cloud Nine is a terrific piece of entertainment well-served by director Anna Mackmin, who won praise for her production of The Crucible here at The Crucible earlier this year, and by the uniformly-fine cast.

The first thing that strikes you as you enter the auditorium is the fantastic set by Jonathan Fensom which features trees bursting through a wooden stage in which trapdoors are set and through which characters enter and exit.

By contrast to the two other Churchill pieces playing in the Studio, perhaps rather unfortunately billed by the theatre as an "apocalyptic vision of a world at war with itself" (Far Away) and "jagged scenes of domestic crisis, collective memory and childhood nightmare" (Fen), Cloud Nine is an absolute romp and a hoot. That Churchill has a freewheeling imagination is clear from Top Girls in which the managing director of an employment agency sits down to dinner with famous women from throughout history including patient Pope Joan, Lady Nijo, and so on. What I wasn't prepared for was her sheer sense of fun.

Think The Comic Strip's spoof of The Famous Five meets the Rocky Horror Show and you have a good idea of what I mean. The play is set in a colonial outpost in the dying days of the Empire. But not only is the Empire threatened from without by the revolting natives, it's threatened from within by a complete breakdown of sexual morality, the avatar being 'Uncle Harry'. Newly returned from exploring up country he, it transpires, is seducing the wife of his chum, Clive, a local official, and has slept with his son, not to mention his servant. And he also has the hots for his friend. He, meanwhile, is having an affair with a neighbour while his wife hankers after hanky panky with the intrepid Harry.

All this further complicated by the fact that the actors take on, and later swap, gender roles, while a white actor plays a native African, though this last reminded me uncomfortably of BBC TV's It Ain't Half Hot Mum. In the second half things get even more wigged out as the action segues into the late 1970s, when the play premiered. At one stage, a glitter ball descends and the cast break into a disco routine. Paul Ritter is terrific as the pith-helmeted, poker straight Clive, Cathy and soldier, while Lucy Briers similarly excels as his son Edward and as Betty, though to single members of the cast out is unfair. Lines like "Young women are never happy. Then, when they get older they see that they were comparatively ecstatic", are relished, as well they might be.

Fen and Far Away, directed by Simon Cox, are in a different vein altogether, offering a far more dystopian view. Fen conjures up the lives of a rural community where hopes are blighted and escape all but impossible. A fine ensemble takes on multiple roles, now aged, now young, with aplomb to create an all too believable picture of country life. Heartbeat will never be the same again!

If Hieronymous Bosch were alive and writing he might very well have come up with Far Away. In one scene, characters at a safe house discuss the various alliances which are forming and reforming. The Latvians, it seems, have joined with the pigs and the dentists. Even nature, the sky, the river, is not neutral. In the most stunning moment, in the first scene, more and more people enter the theatre, topped by a variety of brilliant and bizarre hats, and soundlessly circle the stage as white noise fills the auditorium. Wonderful!

Reviewer: Pete Wood