Presenting a revival of Ben Elton’s early 90s environmental farce Gasping in The Space, located just minutes from Canary Wharf, is appropriate. The role capitalism has played in the climate crisis and the increasing inequality in our society is always understated. The endless drive for new revenue streams and increased profits is why we’ve got to where we are – and no one seems able to stop it.
In Gasping the central metaphor for this is the Pot Noodle, the most unlikely success story in history, a foodstuff which people bought, despite its lack of quality or nutritional value, on top of everything else they were buying. It was a product which generated money where no money had existed before. “Find me a Pot Noodle” ageing multi-millionaire businessman Sir Chiffley Lockheart (Michael Jayes) orders his protégé Philip (William de Coverly). “Make me money where no money existed.”
And so, several months later, Philip finds a Pot Noodle: an obscure machine called Suck and Blow, designed to purify the air for hay-fever sufferers, which he intends to market to high-end consumers as a machine to provide designer air. After all, when you’re drinking Evian and wearing Gucci, why breathe the same air as everyone else?
But what seems like a straight-up business opportunity turns out to have wider consequences. Suddenly, everyone’s buying Suck and Blow, and worse, they’re stockpiling the best air, leaving parts of the world without oxygen as rich countries buy up air from poor countries. A Downing Street spokeswoman advises the air-poor to breathe less, while Philip and Sir Chiffley considers plans to build private Suck and Blow walkways. Where will it end? And what do we do now?
The play itself doesn’t really offer a solution, more a warning – something a playwright in the early 90s could get away with but not today. So, producers Rising Tides, a collective who aim to increase public awareness of climate change through theatre, conclude with a short video of Greta Thunberg’s UN speech and footage of Extinction Rebellion rather than a curtain call. The solution, it seems, is to get out there and demand change. Absolutely, but is Gasping the right rallying cry?
Gasping is a good play but is often too of its era to be relevant today. Jokes that would have brought the house down 30 years ago, about left-wing Labour councils splashing money about and Penelope Keith fronting ads for biscuits, just don’t work today as neither of those things exist anymore. As for the farcical high concept at the centre of this? It’s still pretty solid as an idea but needed a stronger team to really sell it.
The cast, while good, seem under-rehearsed. Particularly Jayes as Sir Chiffley and de Coverly as Philip who fluffed their lines a lot in the performance I attended. Gasping isn’t an easy play for those in these roles, as their dialogue is mainly long, comic speeches which work best if performed quickly, but it was disappointing to see in a professional production. It’s also easy to imagine how good Hugh Laurie as Philip and Bernard Hill as Sir Chiffley would have been in the original 1990 production on the West End. de Coverly sort of channels Laurie’s manic style, delivering a high-energy performance, but Jayes seems less successful as Sir Chiffley, playing him more naturalistically and making him feel far less evil than he is.
In a play like this, all the characters are stereotypes and need to be played accordingly. Gabriel Thompson as Philip’s ambitious mentee Sandy and Skevy Stylia as marketing director Kirsten are more successful as they really double down at being unethical creeps.
While impossible to dislike the intent of this production – to highlight the most important issue facing our world (sorry, Brexit) – this didn’t feel like the right way to do it. What we need is a production about now, about the urgency to act on this above everything else – and which offers a solution.