“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.
“it has huge potential and can be great fun in a bittersweet kind of way”
Ian Meadows’ Between Two Waves is a play with the climate crisis at its core, performed at The Space as part of Rising Tides’ climate extinction double bill.
The story follows climatologist and government advisor Daniel (Tomás Barry), who is dealing not only with an insurance claim for important files damaged in a flood, but also a new relationship with his colleague Fiona (Gintare Smigelskyte), the possibility of bringing a child into an uncertain future and the rising pressure of making the right people listen to his climate warnings.
The story is extremely fast-paced and throws all these elements into the mix simultaneously – none are forgotten about for more than a few minutes as scenes almost overlap each other, with characters from one scene sometimes entering before the previous character from a different scene has left. Daniel is the only constant, remaining on stage throughout the play’s entirety and rarely moving from his spot.
In terms of encouraging dialogue about the climate crisis, Between Two Waves unfortunately falls short. Any statistics and points actively spoken about climate change are used primarily as filler for when Daniel addresses a camera, which makes them appear sterile and somehow implies that we shouldn’t pay attention to what’s being said.
I couldn’t help but notice a lack of discernible message throughout – the multimedia speech at the end seems hastily shoved in at the last minute, perhaps to try and make up for this.
The plot is also quite difficult to follow. The timescale of the story seems to have been chopped into pieces and scattered about, which director Linda Miller has failed to present in a clear way to the audience and is not helped by the sound design (Keri Chesser), which is often disorientating and at some points deafening.
The confusing chronology is particularly problematic when it comes to Daniel and Fiona’s journey together, or rather the lack of it – at one point the play jumps from Fiona screaming at Daniel, having known him for a matter of days, to a year down the line with the two now a happy couple. No reconciliation, no context.
Other confusing plot points involve abstract monologues Daniel delivers to Fiona’s answerphone about his sister – we are given some context about what happened to her but not enough to fully understand her role within his story.
That’s not to say the play doesn’t have its merits. The writing is superb during the more playful interactions – beautifully timed one-liners, witty wordplay and moments of relatable awkwardness are generously peppered throughout. These scenes are hugely enjoyable and have us roaring with laughter, particularly when witnessing Daniel’s knack of saying the complete wrong thing to Fiona – I can’t help but feel that Between Two Waves would work better if it was simplified and more focussed on their relationship.
The individual acting is also wonderful. Each character is a finely honed, multi-faceted being and the actors’ performances seem effortlessly natural. Barry and Smigelskyte stand out purely due to their comic delivery, which pays the text dividends, although Grenelle (Alice Langrish) and Jimmy (William de Coverly) offer fantastic support.
Between Two Waves is a play that suffers from an identity crisis. Its ambition is admirable, sure, but trying to cram five or six stories into one narrative in this case serves only to complicate things and take away from the moments that do work. It’s a shame because it has huge potential and can be great fun in a bittersweet kind of way – so why not concentrate on this and cut off the excess fat?