Clouds, created by Time & Again Theatre Company, is a most unique performance in both the content it presents and the energy it presents it with. It is rare on today’s stage to find a period performance like this that retains such a high level of dynamism, intrigue, depth and relatability. Clouds is most certainly a delight.
Unfortunately, though, I shall start this review rather negatively. The first thing the audience are greeted with on entering the house is a gentleman who presents a cast list to each audience member and tells them — despite his attire — that the date is 1913 and that they may sit anywhere they wish. He then proceeds to stand awkwardly with a nervous smile until the next spectator arrives, hiding his moving, tapping hands behind his back. Here, I already have some personal issues with this performance. I fail to see what this adds to our entry into the play, given that the box office staff have already informed the audience of the unreserved seating and could have given out these lists then, before the performance, and that the time period should be evidenced by the play’s content, the music during the overture and the publicity preceding the performance itself.
It is an unnecessary feature that particularly irks me. Not only does it somewhat prepare the audience for an interactive piece of theatre, where no other interactions actually occur throughout the play, but, with the presentation of a cast list, the initial message becomes “Welcome! This is all fake and just a theatre performance! Enjoy!” and this is not the illusion one would hope to create, unless intentionally. It turns out that this gentleman is not actually part of the performance and is, in fact, an usher of sorts. This would explain the uneasy and faltering demeanour — another reason why the overture would benefit from his absence. Personally, I would quite simply recommend a spotlight on the airplane accompanied by that evocative jazz music.
This brings me on to set (designed by Laura Crow). Set is extremely static, composed of only a toolbox and an airplane. This does not prove problematic, however, for the momentum of this play is so well kept both within the dramatic text itself and by actors, as I will detail later. What it does do, though, is contextualise the action of the play to one particular location, meaning that scenes outside of this are not too well differentiated. Whilst the spotlights on the airplane fade down in such scenes to mark such a change, and whilst there is very little disruption of the play’s legibility and fluidity, if not none whatsoever, I would just be wary of this stagnancy when considering what effect each separate scene should have independently to the rest.
As for the airplane itself, I feel that it is perhaps a little too inelaborate and could have more interactive features. I write this because Laura Crow (playing Winifred) and Ben Hynes’s (playing Philip) characters regularly interact with the model, yet there is very little for them to do beyond tightening imaginary screws, wiping it down with a cloth, and dusting it with their hands. Hence, their interactions seem awkward or fruitless, particularly as there is a slight downward bend on the bottom side of the nose of the plane, meaning that tightening a screw really does not do anything. I did notice that the front propellor does rotate — whether or not it is supposed to do so or can do so all the way around, however, I am not so sure — and more features like this could make these moments and the model itself more believable and impressive. In its sheer simplicity, though, this set becomes vastly emblematic of the skies and hence evocative of the themes of freedom (or emancipation) and escape, and it also forces us to concentrate on the characters themselves. In all, the set helps to both focus and expand our imagination where appropriate very successfully.
As with the airplane model, I found costume (provided by Crow) to be sufficiently evocative of character and time period, but not without its definite faults. Whilst being quite historically inaccurate, there were features of the costume that could have been ameliorated, like the drooping sash on Sylvia’s (Jessica Balmer) dress or Lady Fitzmaurice’s (Julie Burrow) much-too-short umbrella — and not a parasol… I also found it strange that Winifred would refer to the single, grey plume on Lady Fitzmaurice’s hat as a ‘red pigeon’; either the text or costume needs to be modified here. All this considered, costume was enough to allude to an earlier time period and to sustain imagination; it could just be stronger with these more meticulous items in mind.
I enjoyed the fact that aspects of Winifred’s costume change, becoming more and more dishevelled as her illness worsens, and I would have liked to see something similar evoked in the costumes of the other characters, not to evoke illness, of course, but change of time or day. Not only would this be true of the period, with women in particular required to wear varying dresses throughout the day to match morning, afternoon or evening as well as occasion type, but this would also accentuate the play’s chronology. On a similar note, I would like to quickly mention the efficacy of the use of makeup in this performance. Though this was used rather sparingly, where it was utilised, it was impeccable. Crows’s makeup in particular manages to capture fatigue and illness in Winifred’s face splendidly and, above all, realistically. This is most successful. I would just recommend a few top-ups now and again, as the heat of the stage lighting slowly saw the death of it.
On to the writing. The writing demonstrates a keen understanding of the period and filters historical events and featurettes into the narrative seamlessly and effortlessly, making for a rich and convincing text. Whilst, I must admit, not a lot really happens in this play, there is nevertheless a ruthless momentum and intrigue to this dramatic text. This is not because it is particularly dramatic or vitalised, though, but because it deals with relatable matters close to the human heart, investigating identity, purpose, social standing and desire — amongst other poignant themes. Its characters become representative of key characteristics of the human condition: obsession, mortality, sociability, pride, etc., making them both relatable and immediately comprehensible.
However, this also makes them rather caricaturistic, as though stereotypes of aspects of human personality, and this is definitely translated into the acting style. This is not a particularly naturalistic play, both where speech and delivery are concerned, but it is consistent throughout, meaning it generates its own language and style. Acting could still benefit from more variation, however. Lines and action aside, emotional range remains rather limited across the actors, and the caricatures presented become rather stagnant over time. This is the difficulty with creating caricaturistic characters, for they are also very fruitful in their quirks and patterns of speech or behaviour. I would just urge more consciousness of repetition with respect to this, as I did find it particularly grating in places to see these same quirks overworked again and again — for example, Theodore’s (Kieran Palmer) nervousness or expressed interest in nephrology, or Lady Fitzmaurice’s garden party (this latter being more excusable, if studied alone, given its impact on the action of the play).
There remain some irregularities in the writing. As a principal example of this, it is difficult to understand exactly why and when the other characters take so much to Freddie. From very early on in the play, it is clear that Freddie is not favoured by any of the characters, and Philip and Sylvia make this particularly clear with their bitchiness and spite towards her in the first scene. Lady Fitzmaurice is the most concrete example of Freddie being disliked, nay detested, by the others, and yet all of them, including Lady Fitzmaurice, seem to suddenly gravitate towards her, almost idolising her, even. Surely that which the other characters deem as ‘determination’ would, in fact, irritate them as grinding persistence or as proving them wrong.
As for acting, whilst certain gestures, movements and reactions were, again, much too repetitive, all actors were very good in this performance, maintaining energy and character very well. They were each sure of and confident in their characters, delivering lines appropriately, despite a few, excusable trip-ups, and were hence convincing and enjoyable to watch. As mentioned before, I would have liked to see a more successful emotional range from the actors, Jessica Balmer aside. Whilst I understand that the text itself limits this, there are definitely moments that could be more effective on the actors’ behalf, as primarily the case with Crow who struggles to present anger, frustration or distress cogently.
Entrances and exits start to feel highly repetitive, particularly for Winifred who always seems to appear behind other characters, mainly Philip, without them noticing, joining in with their conversations or songs, or making remarks that grab their attention and alert them to her arrival. There is not much creativity beyond the dialogue itself, one might say. There are also some irregularities where topography is concerned. There are moments when characters exit, around the curtain Upstage, that characters watch them go ‘from a distance’, and yet they start to stare up the staircase, just to the right, even when characters have not quite left yet. This makes for an inaccuracy where the play’s architecture and geography are concerned.
In general, all actors could be a lot quicker during transitions which often feel clunky and long. Although, this is not particularly helped by the use of lighting (designed by Tim Cooper). Primarily consisting of spotlights and fades, I find the lighting’s simplicity, overall, to be sensible and reflective of the mood and world of the play. However, especially as transitions are quite awkwardly lengthy, fades seem to become overused and repetitious, and this makes transitions seem monotonous but also disruptive with the fallible addition of music, which I shall detail shortly. However, as mentioned earlier, lighting does aid for a sense of location change and for the employment of motifs, primarily with the spotlights on the airplane model, and retains pertinence to the performance. I would just add, as a final note, that the fuchsia wash backstage needs to go. I have no idea why it is part of the lighting memory in the first place, attached to the other cues, fading and lifting along with them, and see it as highly distracting and disruptive of illusion.
I found music (also by Cooper) to be very coherent, providing a relevant variety of Edwardian jazz. However, its use in transitions was often very fallible and awkward as well. Transitions were far too short for music in general, let alone music containing lyrics as was often the case. I understand the tendency to fill transitions with music, as, otherwise, they can seem rather bare or unseemly, but this is most likely because the transitions are not slick and tidy enough, not because silence is inherently a bad feature of a performance. If music has to be used, I would urge it be simply instrumental or that the transitions be long enough to allow the music to settle in the space. It takes a while for the ear to catch on to a rhythm, and so the music needs time to make its mark amongst the audience. Ironically, I do feel that certain transitions could be longer, just for permission of this effect, but only those between scenes that really demonstrate a change in tone, rhythm or plot. Perhaps this could help better an understanding of the characters’ sudden admiration Winifred, for example, with a sense of the passing of time.
Overall, with the pedant within me aside, this performance remains very articulate and entertaining. Actors make for a believable world, and the variety of their characters make for intrigue. This is a very gripping and rather fruitful performance.