Review by Xan Ashbury ·

West Australian Youth Theatre Company’s production of Cloud Nine represents one of those glorious times when a work is perfectly matched to the space in which it is performed.

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, (directed here by Jeffrey Jay Fowler) was radical when first performed in 1979 – on the cusp of Thatcher’s rise to power. It playfully condemns Victorian morality and colonialism. It questions the constructs of race, gender and sexuality. Of course, these subjects and themes have every place on a mainstage in our contemporary, post-colonial age but, somehow, descending the many sets of stairs to Studio Underground felt like stepping back in time, to pay respects to one of the fearless practitioners of “underground” theatre.

Ana Ika, Lexie Sleet, Phoebe Sullivan, Isaac Diamond and Phil Lynch in ‘Cloud Nine’. Photo Daniel Grant.

From the beginning of the first act (set in Africa, 1879), the cast’s reverence and affection for Cloud Nine is clear.

Isaac Diamond is brilliant in the role of Clive, a colonial administrator who makes us laugh at everything that is  wrong with the patriarchy and British Empire. Women are mysterious and treacherous, even more so than the native, he declares, shortly before disappearing under the hoop skirt of Mrs Saunders (Ana Ika), a woman who has taken shelter in Clive’s home during an uprising.

Clive is condescending to his wife, Betty, admirably portrayed by Phil Lynch (“How was your day, dear? No fainting, no hysteria?”) and hilariously awkward with their baby, Victoria, represented by a doll. He also bullies his son Edward (Phoebe Sullivan) who is unwilling to adhere to the traditional trappings of masculinity.

Left to right Lexie Sleet, ‘Ana Ika, Phil Lynch
Lexie Sleet, Ana Ika  and Phil Lynch in ‘Cloud Nine’. Photo: Daniel Grant.

When an apparently heroic explorer, Harry (David Mitchell) turns up, the action descends into farce. Fawning over Harry, Lynch, as Betty, is beautiful to watch. Harry plays along, aware that society expects him to be heterosexual. When the explorer’s true orientation is revealed, Clive is outraged: “Rivers will be named after you! It’s unthinkable.”

Churchill’s characters are complex and contradictory. While it is painful to watch Harry on the ground, saying he suffers from “a disease more dangerous than diphtheria”, he has also exploited his power over Edward and others. There are no moral absolutes here and Mitchell does well to convey the character’s vulnerability and despair, as well as swagger borne of male privilege.

Cam Pollock plays Clive’s obsequious African “manservant”, Joshua, to perfection. The scene ends with a hint that he will no longer accept his inferior role. Churchill’s script demands that Joshua is played by a white man, just as Edward must be played by a woman and Betty by a man. It’s a device that effectively disrupts conventional thinking about gender and race.

The first act is rife with desire but also with repression and oppression. Even while I was laughing through this stylised comedy of manners, my heart was breaking for Betty, for Joshua, for Edward, for the governess Ellen (Ana Ika), who has fallen in love with Betty.

The play’s second act fast-forwards a century, to London. The same characters appear, along with a few new ones, but have only aged 25 years. Importantly, each actor has swapped roles.

For example, Diamond (first the all-powerful Clive) is now a young girl, Cathy. Ika (previously the governess and Mrs Saunders) plays the grown-up Victoria, who leaves her husband for a same-sex relationship with Lin (Lexie Sleet). Lynch (formerly Betty) is now Betty’s gay son Eddy. Sullivan (formerly Edward) becomes the newly liberated Betty. Often, the power has flipped, along with the actor’s gender.

Confused? Thankfully, I never was. The play’s unique casting and doubling created some resonances that were immediately obvious and others that occurred to me days later. This speaks volumes about the actors’ skill and versatility, and Fowler’s expert direction.

In his program notes, WAYTCo executive producer James Berlyn said that in programming the major scripted work this year (for their 18 to 26-year-old members), he spoke to a number of leading WA theatre directors and was impressed by Fowler’s commitment to fostering emerging talent and his “burning desire to stage Churchill’s incredible and difficult masterwork”. He said Fowler’s signing on to the project created a buzz within the WAYCo membership, resulting in almost 400% increase in audition members compared to last year.

That passion and enthusiasm pervades every aspect of this remarkable production.

Cloud Nine plays The Studio Underground until July 28.

This review was first published by SeeSaw and appears on Noted with kind permission from Nina Levy.