Reviewed By Cody Fullbrook
Gasp! has wafted its way to the Limelight Theatre, under the direction of Phil Bedworth, and adapted for modern WA audiences from the 1990’s play Gasping by Perth’s own Ben Elton (He’s actually from London but who’d want to leave isolated Perth during a pandemic anyway?).
Phillip, played by Usman Banday, is an employee at the mining company, Lockheart Industries, who envisions the idea of a lifetime; a device that filters and improves oxygen, leading to a journey of love, greed, and misplaced priorities. The satire is in full gail in Gasp!, opening with a long (very long) PowerPoint presentation elaborating on the life of the company’s leader, with mocking references to political and social figures you may not understand unless you share Elton’s specific ideological sensibilities.
I feel sorry for the cast and crew of Gasp! as they have the awkward burden of visualizing an extremely text-heavy script, dripping like a monsoon with the air of taking anonymous snipes at politicians on Twitter. Gasp! is a parody before a comedy, lacking any visual or slapstick humour, and relies on “jokes” that are nothing more than referencing famous things and crowbarring coarse metaphors into dialogue for levity. Everyone does their best to add energy and thought into their characters, but nobody manages to squirm out of pacing back and forth while embodying their consistently 1-note personalities.
Banday’s Phillip is lovable and infectiously eager, and efficiently glides through his character’s dialogue while storming each entrance with hurricane-strength intensity. But even with the most stage time, as well as the only character with an arc, Phillip, whether pitching ideas, feelings, or even a marriage, is acted as a gust of shouty gesticulations, like a manic C-3PO. And he’s left little alternative as Gasp!’s script focuses purely on satirising big business and corporatism, to the point that actors are denied the range to become introspective or even sincerely charismatic.
The perfect example is Sandy, played by Joel Coyle. As Phillip’s on-and-off frenemy, Sandy is written as a standard, ass kissing, 2nd banana, and given the shallow writing, Coyle has no choice but to ramp this display up to tempest-levels on the smarminess barometer. This resulted in an unintentionally hilarious moment when he reacted to a compliment by raising his hands, in the cocky “adjust my tie” gesture, on an unbuttoned shirt that didn’t have one.
The best attempts are made by Kirsten the image consultant and Phillip’s girlfriend, Peggy, played by Federica Longo-Huntington and Lisa Michelle respectively. As key figures in the romance subplot, Kirsten, the career woman, acts both as Phillip’s succubus, as well as a typhoon yin to Peggy’s breezy yang. But nobody gets blown back harder than Mark Fitzpatrick who plays the boss of Lockheart Industries, referred to only as Chief. He can’t have a name because then we risk empathising with a businessman who are all evil all the time. Even as Fitzpatrick plays Chief with appropriate, measured professionalism, he, unsurprisingly, must speak his lines with his head pointed at the floor while aimlessly walking around the room, resting his hands on tables to break up the steps.
In fact, the furniture, props and even costumes do much of the work to give life to such a static script with minimalist requirements. Whether it’s a bar cart in the office or an actual gurney in the hospital, each scene in Gasp! instantly feels real (In a theatrical, suspension of disbelief, way). Special mention must go to the costumes that, despite many scenes lasting several minutes, change for each of them. There are even different robes when revisiting the employee steam room. Though, the set changes were disappointingly clunky, with scenes abruptly cutting to black with shadowy crew members dragging items on and off stage, awkwardly illuminated by the off-white glow of the projector screen. Many sets, such as the hospital and Phillip’s couch, took up less than a third of the stage, but no effort was made to have these scenes creatively rotate around, like a cyclone, or something, I dunno.
Cast and crew give a commendable effort for this lively and well-paced production, but Gasp! is not a breath of fresh air and is in fact itself gasping. A simplistic and unfunny parody completely outmatched by shows with similar ideas such as Urinetown: The Musical, Eugenius, and 1984. I must sigh with resignation as the basic writing of Gasp! makes it a show I simply cannot recommend. I feel like I put more effort working wind related words into this review. I am quite torn(ado) on the idea of adding more.