Excited chatter went around the Heath Ledger Theatre as people realised that Ben Elton was in the audience for the opening preview of his play Gasp! The director Wesley Enoch gave a brief introduction including the right to stop the play at any stage if there were technical difficulties. Thankfully this wasn’t required as the performance went smoothly with opening night scheduled for this Wednesday.
Gasp! is a reworking of Elton’s first professional play (originally called Gasping) and has been reimagined specifically in an Australian context. It is a satire about the absurdity and ethical vacuum of big business as even air is commodified for profit. Great for those who can afford this designer air, not so good for the poor who slowly suffocate.
The cast is made up of Greg McNeill as Chifley Lockheart, head of a resources company that has mined most of Australia and sent it offshore to the Chinese. Steven Rooke plays a seven figure executive, Sandy, who toadies up to the boss at every opportunity and lords over the six figure number two, Phillip (Damon Lockwood). Phillip has his heart set on asthma-ridden Peggy (Lucy Goleby) whose respiratory ailments give him the idea for Suck ‘n’ Blow, a device that sucks in the air, purifies it, and blows it back into classy establishments. But as Caroline Brazier’s high powered marketing executive, Kirsten, excels in selling this designer air, suddenly consumers are hording it until finally oxygen itself is just another product. The power of global market forces ensures it quickly becomes out of reach of the masses to devastating consequences.
The cast is excellent. Lockwood impresses as the man who wants to prove himself not only in the company but to the girl he tried to kiss ‘on the oval’. I have some issues about his character’s arc but this is otherwise a very engaging performance. McNeill has great fun as the blustering corporate heavyweight and gives a cheeky turn in more ways than one. Rooke has a difficult role as his character is largely a device to generate conflict and obstacles for Phillip but he does it well. Brazier gives the ballsy ad executive an air of supreme confidence and sexiness that works in direct contrast to perhaps the key role, Goleby’s Peggy. She plays the moral compass of the play with a natural charm that grounds proceedings as every other character deals in hyperbole and one-upmanship.
Enoch’s curious introductory remarks make much more sense when you see the technical ingenuity of the set where sliding sections of stage floor meant scene changes were quick, seamless, and inventive. There is also a large screen on the back wall where images and charts are projected to give this a real visual flair. The recreation of an executive steam room was particularly well done. There was only one moment where Lockwood was left in darkness at the beginning of a scene a few beats too long but being most adept at improvisation his winking nods to the audience kept things moving nicely. There were some minor timing issues but that will shake out over the run as the cast adjusts to where unexpected or prolonged laughs and spontaneous bursts of applause land.
Then there is the writing. Blackadder certainly was a formative sitcom as I was growing up and that style of humour is replete here, especially throughout the first act. Witty and cutting asides on topics and persons of derision are trademarks but at times it felt like Elton was too eager to please a hometown audience. The local references are fast and furious and there is an immediacy that instantly dates this version. The mining industry and figures such as Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer, Twiggy Forrest and Rupert Murdoch are easy targets as is the obligatory Abbott jab. Then there’s a host of pop culture references including the Kardashians, the Minogues, and even a Russell Crowe gag. Sure, it’s funny but at times felt strained.
Enoch had also mentioned that the creative team would be watching audience reactions as they calibrated the show and performances. This becomes notable in the second act where there was an early sequence where the humour became questionable especially in relation to women and there was an outburst regarding indigenous Australians that had me gasping but for all the wrong reasons. It was in keeping with the character’s viewpoint but the fact it went unchallenged was a concern. The mood of the audience noticeably shifted and it was an uncomfortable stretch for a while.
The second act is problematic because the dilemma set up for Phillip is whether he’ll stay beholden to the company or follow his conscience as pricked by Peggy. At times he seems to resist the manipulations of Lockheart but then is complicit in the larger horror of the ruthless extension of the air industry. So Phillip’s moral compass wavers all over the place whereas it called for a more natural progression. Peggy’s fate is dealt with in perfunctory fashion which felt odd as she should have been the moral bedrock in any decision Phillip made. The ending acts only as that – an end to the play. It comes out of left field and is thematically disturbing – the only action to take in the face of a rapacious and out-of-control business conglomerate is one so extreme as to be horrifying on many levels. Yes, this is satire but it was too much of a dark twist for mine. In the words of the play, it needed another ‘dog turd’ to bring out the absurdity in the fabric of the premise.
Having said that, there is a lot to like here - very strong performances, a great set and, especially in the first half, the trademark sense of humour that has made Ben Elton a household name. However, it will be interesting to discover whether Messrs’ Enoch, Elton and co were indeed listening to the mood of the audience early in the second act as the lady sitting next to me openly pondered as the lights came up.
Gasp! opens on Wednesday night at the State Theatre Centre and runs until 9 November. Written by Ben Elton and Directed by Wesley Enoch it stars Damon Lockwood, Greg McNeill, Caroline Brazier, Lucy Goleby and Steven Rooke.