Reviewed – 25th October 2019
“with a small cluster of 80s stereotypes and a feverish stream of innuendos and misogyny, it’s beaten to death over the ensuing two hours”
First staged in 1990, during the first flush of Britain’s love affair with corporate greed and privatisation, Ben Elton’s ‘Gasping’ imagines a company, Lockheart Industries, commoditising the one natural resource left to exploit. With help from a marketing agency they devise and popularise the ‘Suck Blow’ machine to process air into designer variants, to achieve what Perrier and Evian achieved for water. That’s the idea, and with a small cluster of 80s stereotypes and a feverish stream of innuendos and misogyny, it’s beaten to death over the ensuing two hours.
For a modern audience the possibility that capitalism has an environmental downside is hardly a revelation and witnessing the relentless extraction of cheap jokes from the subject is as fun as fracking. Much in the style of the writer’s stand-up comedy, which worked as a mechanical barrage of anti-establishment mockery, this production from the Rising Tides Collective harvests some appreciation from its audience. However, their options are limited by the language and shallowness of this oddity dredged from a generally unmissed era. The only scene which satirises today’s world is that in which a spokesman outside 10 Downing Street (Emily Beach) advises people on how to breathe less, implicating the media in the process.
Ben Elton’s first attempt at writing for the stage might have worked better as period piece, with stylised costumes and hyperbolic performances like a restoration comedy. Indeed, William de Coverly as Philip, the golden boy of Lockheart’s Air Division, does most to embody his character’s bombast, strutting and preening like Freddy Mercury. Michael Jayes is too gentle as the destructively acquisitive Sir Chiffley Lockheart if only because, like the rest of the cast, he is allowed one dimension only in which to work. Skevy Stylia must play Kirsten the same in scenes where she’s a ‘marketing whiz’ as in those where she is ‘tasty totty’ and Gabriel Thomson’s control and competence as Sandy, Philip’s rival in the affections of both Kirsten and Sir Chiffley, seem to be for a different situation entirely.
After the interval, the brave cast are further burdened by the ill-judged incorporation of projections showing real life scenes of privation in Africa. No doubt intended to shock us into seeing that climate change is destroying real lives, right now, the sincerity appears naively bolted on and even crass in a context of knob gags and sketch-show characters.
Production design is basic as befits the era, but depresses rather than heightens the experience, with only sound (Keri Chesser) and lighting (Luke Ofield) departments coming across with confidence. As part of Climate Extinction double bill, the intentions of the production team seem irreproachable, with several new writing projects advertised. Even the idea of restaging older works from a famous name to spread the message more widely, is heartfelt. But Gasping is a superficial play designed to cash in on the alternative comedy boom, not the heartfelt plea for sanity that its producers seem to have misconceived it as.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
The Space until 16th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: