It’s almost always better when you start things off with a bang.
Striding onto the stage without warning, a lone figure resolutely seats himself at a piano and begins to play, only for Cloud Nine’s strikingly talented lighting and set designers to upstage what would otherwise have been one of a few stand-out performances.
Set, unusually, in 1860s Africa and a present day in which but 25 years have passed for the handful of characters fixated on notions of sex, class and identity, the cast are not confined to singular roles in proceedings, nor tied down to particular characters based on traits including age or gender.
Launching with a ribald-ridden take on the societal mores of colonialism, the latter half soon moves into more traditional territory and drama, in the process transitioning to a singularly different context for the familiar characters so aptly as to render the effect among the play’s best innovations.
The action itself however no match for its staging, the rare addition of an earthen floor nicely situates the goings-on in what otherwise could have been a sparse, unfeeling milieu; the dramatic use of strong lighting too, together with a haze pervading the final act, contributing greatly to the environmental simulation without which the production would not have had near as much of an impact.
A transparent structure of sorts representing the private confines of those characters most apologetic for the setting’s colonial subjugation plays hosts to Cloud Nine’s best transitional effects as props and performers fleet between frequent cuts to darkness to render the stage wholly different with every few passing seconds. Consummately setting the mood for the events to unfold in the play’s final portion with a notable sleight of hand, the few moments of the performance where all the action is restricted to this particular stage, rather than it serving as a backdrop for the much more involving action that takes place, serves to create a needless disconnect with the audience not apparent throughout the rest of the production.
That which transpires neither unfunny nor unengaging, the farcical turns play best into the show’s frequent slapstick though with too regular recurrence are jarringly divergent in tone from Cloud Nine’s more emphatic elements which alone bear a lasting impact. While each of the performers succeed in carving out their own niche in the tumult, Kate Box and Heather Mitchell best compound the distinctly different if thematically consistent terrains of their respective characters, both grounding a challenging premise and visibly linking the key elements evident in playwright Caryl Churchill’s two written halves through a tonal recognition of what is robustly uniform about each segment.
The non-traditional casting decisions not unwelcome nor of the type too unfamiliar in modern theatre, the knowing nods that the central performer over and above his counterparts all but gives to the audience in one of a number of the performers’ frequently overstated flourishes when navigating Cloud Nine’s fairly most contentious material, wholly unnecessary in what as staged evidently bears satirical hallmarks, undermines what in the likes of Box’s dual performances was otherwise realised as compelling, memorable theatre.
In spite of these shortcomings, Harry Greenwood and Josh McConville manage to pull off some of the play’s best instances and physical humour, the former revelling in an extended sequence involving a piece of glass that despite appearing to be (as with some of the gags traditional in numerous comedies past) crudely all-too familiar, is actually one of Cloud Nine’s funniest moments.
Matthew Backer, traipsing one of the greater divides between his respective characters, is too a highlight of a show that hugely benefits from a few deft leads and just how well its surrounds brought its concepts to life.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5
Sydney Theatre Company presents
By Caryl Churchill
Director Kip Williams
Matthew Backer, Kate Box, Harry Greenwood, Anita Hegh, Josh McConville, Heather Mitchell, Anthony Taufa
Previews 1 Jul – 5 Jul 2017
Season 7 Jul – 12 Aug 2017