Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill

This play reminds me of the sort of  ‘theatre of the absurd’ which we did in the 6th form, in the late 1960s, with our trendy drama teacher. It comes from the time of travelling theatre workshops visiting schools with anti-racist and gay liberation agendas. It is like a hilariously funny farce with its cross-dressing and some of us would love see it performed or, at least, see if it is on Youtube.  One member said that if had seen it in 1979 it would have changed his life.

The first act, set in Victorian Africa, shows how the colonials regarded the natives as primitive, herdsmen would gladly chop off others’ heads and wear them round their waists and how some natives knew their place, were ‘white’ in their souls though black of skin.

Friendship between men is seen as better and that of a husband to a wife, who is there for reproductive purposes but ‘there is something dark about women….irrational, inconsistent, lustful; treacherous.’

 One woman’s advice to a soon to be bride, who knows nothing about sex, is tojust keep still. You are not getting married to enjoy yourself

 Homosexuality is seen as a‘revolting perversion’ which led to the fall of Rome and is more contagious than diphtheria. It is especially important not to do it with natives since it would be a betrayal of the Queen.

The second act is a hundred years later, though I don’t understand why the characters are only twenty-five years older. Attitudes to sexuality are supposed to be liberated, there is mention of The Hite Report but there is still a feeling of oppression, with some male characters wearing dresses. Maybe attitudes don’t change as much as we think they do.

Although the play is well put together, the first act is more believable that the second. The second act is more disturbing than the first.  Its people claim to be liberated but are actually quite dysfunctional.

One member felt that it was cartoonish, a bad attempt at a Monty Python sketch.  The characters, wheeled out as stereotypes, are mannequins, upon which we can project. This view was challenged by one who said that they were more akin to archetypes or emblems.

The person who chose the book, who was unable to attend the discussion owing to illness, sent these notes:

Structurally v innovative with its move forward 100 years between acts 1 and 2 while only aging the characters by 25 years. (Typically bold theatrical manoeuvre by CC.)

Relationship between Edward and Gerry nicely problematic:  how does one find a basis for a gay relationship when there are no rules other than those established by a heterosexist history? It’s a problem also articulated in Gay Sweatshop’s Mister X of 1975.

Similarly problematic is the character of Martin, the failed New Man, a figure whom one initially dislikes but who then comes across with considerable pathos..

The play has been condemned as portraying sexual liberation as a kind of social panacea. Personally, I disagree with this criticism. I think CC provides us with Act 1 – the problem then, and Act 2 – the problem now, and I think this is done in an interesting and enlightening way. Be that as it may, the play is a milestone in the development of gay and feminist awareness.

Difficult to stage, however.  I have seen, I think, five different productions between 1980 and 2008.  Of those, only one – at the Almeida in 2008 – was really successful.


“Maud: Young women are never happy.
Betty: Mother, what a thing to say.
Maud: Then when they’re older they look back and see that comparatively speaking they were ecstatic.”

“Harry: I supposed getting married wouldn’t be any worse than killing myself.”

“Martin: Yes, I’d like to go home and do some work. I’m writing a novel about women from the women’s point of view.”

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We Disappear – Scott Heim

Having been enthralled by his first book and less keen on his second, I found that this third book returns to the interesting world of the first, with its missing people, alcohol and drug problems, prison work and storms.

There are the same evocative phrases, e.g. ‘the clouds low and heavy, as though clogged with pearls’; ‘wetly thrapping mop.

There is a moving account of a mother’s death from cancer, reflecting the author’s own experience.

I liked the description of hymns as ‘strange songs with strange melodies’.

I am wondering what revelation will accompany the author’s next book.

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)


“The room was darker and smelled of evergreen, as though my mother had been dreaming of trees.”

“Somewhere, in some shadowy bedroom of a leaf-strewn town, a father bolts the door to a child’s room, then steps closer to the bed. In a neighbor’s garden lurks a weed with a funny, blade-petaled flower, its poison choking the red roses. Somewhere a car is crashing; a phone is ringing in the center of night. The spider waits poised in the slipper. The bird swoops headlong into glass it thought was farther air. The strangler envisions a neighborhood of throats. The head finds the noose; the foot kicks the chair.”

“The girl was holding out her hand, but I could only give a pathetic shrug. I had nothing to give her. I’d finally faded away.”

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In Awe – Scott Heim

Having greatly enjoyed Mysterious Skin, I found this book disappointing. The last few pages are engrossing but the earlier parts of the book are confusing and I wonder how many readers persevere to the end.

As in his other work, Heim’s descriptions are graphic: you can almost taste and smell the scenes. Some are onomatopoeic, e.g. ‘the wipers squeak their rubbery swath, stamping leaves and June bugs further into the flotsam at the windshield’s bottom’

In common with his previous book are disappearings, thunder storms where something awful happens, prostitution and sexual abuse. Additionally, we get a teenager siphoning off a love-object’s urine from a toilet with a test tube and drinking it – talk about taking the piss. There is also a scene of necrophilia which I found disturbing and sad by turns.

It is a tale about revenge by people who don’t fit in. But the revenge goes too far.

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

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Gypsy Boy: One Boy’s Struggle to Escape from a Secret World Mikey Walsh

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Echoing the phrase `You can take the Jew out of the ghetto but you cannot take the ghetto out of the Jew, the writer asserts, `You can take the boy away from the Gypsies, but you can’t take the Gypsy out of the boy.’ and points out that Gypsy, like Jewish, culture was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust.

This is a thoroughly engaging description of a boy growing up alienated from his culture. One assumes that it is a true story though it deals in stereotypes: the distant, violent father who despairs of his gay son, the over-protective mother who talks of `special, my little boy’, the child abuser at the heart of the family who believes that his victims enjoy what he does to them and the hypocrisy of the lads who get as much sex as they can with `Gorgias’ but who expect their Gypsy brides to be virgins until marriage.

I am no prude but I was shocked how sexual swear words were commonplace yet sex itself was a taboo subject.

I had always thought that Gypsies were quite devout yet this family are non-religious yet the father cynically displays a fish badge on his van so that the elderly, for whom he does various jobs badly and then overcharges them, will think he is honest. In an odd take on family values, he is happy to fleece them for money because he has a family to feed and they come first.

I am looking forward to reading the sequel when it comes out in paperback.

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