Gasping

Previewed 1 June 1990, Opened 7 June 1990, Closed 16 February 1991 at the Haymarket Theatre

Ben Elton's new hil-AIR-ious play Gasping in London

Lockheart Industries are making senior money. If God wanted to buy into their stock he'd have to think twice and talk to his people. They have a profit curve wound so far round the room it looks like a Blue Peter Christmas appeal. But they're bored, they want more. New ideas. new product. They want to feel the way the head of Golden Wonder felt the day his top trouble shooter walked in and slapped Pot Noodle on the table. That's when someone discovers Suck and Blow...

The marketing phenomenon of the decade has arrived! Designer air!! Perrier for the nostrils!!!

Picture two top level executive wine bars... both are so crowded it takes three days to get a drink, both have got girls slooshing the plonk with legs sufficiently frisky to revitalise the British motor industry... but only one has got pure, filtered, scented de-polluted designer air. Obviously there is a health down-side when too much sucking taking place in a confined space. When yawning too deeply becomes an anti socil activity... When real air bored invite you to a particularly fine sucking... When an Englishman's nose is no longer his castle. Eventually of course, people start falling over trying to run for a bus, and that's when it gets serious.

The original cast (up to 8 September 1990) featured Hugh Laurie as 'Philip' and Bernard Hill as 'Sir Chiffley Lockheart (Chief)' with Jaye Griffiths as 'Kirsten', Simon Mattacks as 'Sandy' and Catherine McQueen as 'Miss Hodges'. With the pre-recorded voice of Stephen Fry. The second cast (from 10 September 1990 to end of run) featured John Gordon-Sinclair as 'Philip' and and Jim Carter as 'Sir Chiffley Lockheart (Chief)' with Jaye Griffiths as 'Kirsten', Simon Mattacks as 'Sandy' and Julia Righton as 'Miss Hodges'. Directed by Bob Spiers with designs by Terry Parsons, costumes by Sharon Lewis, lighting by Mark Henderson and music by Simon Brint.

"The idea is that a tycoon and his sycophants market the last element to have eluded the profiteers. Air joins land, water and heat as something for which we must pay, thanks to machines that extract its impurities and leave the rich with sumptuous oxygen and the poor with leftover grot... Bob Spiers's production fails to stretch Bernard Hill, who is heavy, arrogant and, as if protesting against such caricature, sometimes inappropriately camp. Hugh Laurie, his gawky yelps undermining his self-importance, is more interesting, if implausible as a high-flyer. Perhaps the evening's most enjoyable moments are set-pieces in which he or Simon Mattacks mime being murderously massaged in an executive gym or coping with five portable phones simultaneously. But they are sketches merely, part of their author's feverish laugh-in and easily extracted from their context. Elton is a gifted entertainer, no doubt of it, but he has not created a satisfying play." The Times

"Ben Elton's first West End play is based on a single idea: that there is no natural resource left that cannot be exploited for profit. As a thesis it is perfectly viable and up to the interval it is sustained by Mr Elton's rococo verbal style. But thereafter the play slowly expires for want of any real comic invention or development of the initial proposition: having said what he has to say, Mr Elton simply goes on repeating it more loudly... As a satire on the business-jungle, the play has its moments... But a sharp eye and ear alone do not make a play. The fundamental problem is that, while a stand-up comic has to forget other people long enough to be himself, a dramatist has to forget himself long enough to be other people: the difficulty here is that Mr Elton's characters remain puppets whom he busily manipulates... Hugh Laurie displays formidable energy as Philip and clings to the one character-point Mr Elton manages to make: that a man may be a whizz in the boardroom and a damp squib in the bedroom, not that the sexually gauche Mr Laurie ever gets quite that far. Looking like a cross between Arnold Bennett and Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Hill as the head of Lockheart Industries neatly suggests an Edwardian hangover in charge of a modern concern." The Guardian

"In Gasping the rising executive Philip has the smart idea of selling the air we breathe - and so we have a city-slicker play as barbed as, and much funnier than, Serious Money, the sharpest futuristic comedy since Henceforward, and the best Green comedy since The Good Life was young. Not that Gasping is likely to prove a comedy classic: it's too here, too now, for that... The jokes work because they're in character. Everyone catches perfectly the blase tones of City parlance. And Hugh Laurie makes them hilarious time and again because, as Philip, he's so plainly a frowning open-mouthed prat who has to labour to keep up with all that casual display of superior knowledge... Bernard Hill plays Sir Chiffley, the past-master of industrial conquest, as a crude, nonchalant, portly, cigar-chewing tyrant; and his eyebrows are almost as funny as Laurie's. They show you how he relishes the success of his own vulgarity... The play is a two-acter, and runs just over two hours and a half. Thanks to Bob Spiers' brisk, sharp direction, barely an episode flags. During Act 1, my laughter range spanned about three octaves: squeak, cackle, shriek, chuckle, guffaw, gurgle, rumble. But where could the play go from there? Without losing its comic edge it becomes blacker. And more deadly." The Financial Times

Gasping in London at the Haymarket Theatre previewed from 1 June 1990, opened on 7 June 1990 and closed on 16 February 1991