NODA review of Gasping

Performance: 3rd September 2015

Review by Stephen Hayter

One of the great joys of being a NODA Regional Representative is seeing a wide range of shows. This mighty privilege is occasionally amplified when a request comes through to go off-the-patch and look at a group on someone else’s turf. Such was the case on Thursday when newly appointed Area One incumbent, Richard Fitt entrusted me with The Mill Youth of Sharnbrook, and their production of Ben Elton’s ‘Gasping’.

For one who is conceited enough to think he knows a bit about theatre, I was embarrassed to say that Mr Elton’s 1990 offering had passed me completely by. I had neither seen it, nor even heard of it, and there was a good reason. I am in somewhat of a minority in as much as I really don’t like the output from Mr Curtis (Richard), or Mr Elton and it remains a complete enigma that somehow between them, they managed to craft the almost perfect Blackadder (2,3 and Goes Fourth. The first series was garbage!). As Director Paul Wildman updated me, I confess to a feeling of foreboding at the words Ben and Elton.

More of that in a moment, but first a few general comments from someone who was new to Sharnbrook Mill Theatre. A stunning (and I really do mean stunning) venue that simply took my breath away. An old flour mill with parts that dated back to the 1700’s still boasting a powerful supply of water circulating around its sadly defunct main turbine. It was just beautiful, even if the sound of fast flowing water sent me to the lavatory almost as soon as I arrived. Everything front of house was superb with a very warm welcome from senior management and a large, dedicated and skilful crew of junior members oozing efficiency and organisation. Indeed it was the Front of House Manager who took me through to see the turbine after I have been given an extensive tour of the establishment and its impressive facilities.

The play itself had only to be into its first quarter of an hour when I would have known it was the work of one of the two previously mentioned gentlemen. It had something of Blackadder about it and the lead seemed to be Hugh Laurie, which upon closer inspection of the program turned out to be the very actor to have done the show in London. The story was surreal, but simple enough. Sir Chiefly Lockheart, CEO of a generic conglomerate, charges his best man Philip, with coming up with the next “ Pot Noodle”. A metaphor for something that will make money, where no money has been made before. The answer is designer air, with dirty air being sucked into a newly designed machine and pure air being stored within. It was a confused piece with the first 70% high comedy, and the last 30% satire, and social comment laced with pathos. An eclectic mix you will agree.

The impressively large stage was adorned with only token props and no scenery, which was completely appropriate for this type of piece. Lighting (Jake Brightman) and sound (Sandy Allen-Rowlendson) functional rather than spectacular but did all that they needed to do. Costumes, (Cast) lacked a little thought perhaps, but caused me no offence.

The cast was small with most players getting their fair share of the dialogue. Antonia Testa probably had the least to do as PA Miss Hodges primarily, but also as Weathergirl/Minister and News Reporter. Miss Testa was solid throughout and added good support to the leads. I also enjoyed Chris Howes as middle manager on the make, Sandy, who was also solid with his lines but looked a little inexperienced at times. His CV suggested he had done more Musical Theatre than plays and that may well explain it.

The central pillar of the piece was Chief Executive, Sir Chiefly Lockheart, played with confidence by Laurence Kirkwood. Mr Kirkwood seemed to relish the absurdity of the part and he delivered most of the best gags with great aplomb. There were a lot of reference to age in the part and I did find myself wondering if he shouldn’t have been made to look older. Just an observation and not at all a criticism. This was indeed a wordy piece with most of those words delivered at high speed. As the lead character, Philip, Samuel Robinson was on top form with dialogue that was machine-gun quick slowing only very slightly during a remarkably small number of stumbles that he quickly corrected without assistance. It was an accomplished performance from start to finish, peaking comedically during the steam room/massage scene. It slid a little towards a Hugh Laurie impression at times which may have been by design, or maybe by accident, it didn’t matter either way.

I save penultimate paragraph honours for Eireann Mason as promotion and marketing guru, Kirsten, who delivered a beautifully measured performance that had perfect pace. Looking just a little more at home on that stage than her accomplices she managed to match facial expressions to her lines and really dominated every scene she was in.

My congratulations to Director, Paul Wildman for an excellent nights entertainment. His direction was tidy and well-judged with criticisms few. I felt a few more costume changes would have helped things along and I do think a little character make up to age Sir Chiefly Lockheart would have been nice, but such minor things are barely worth mentioning. This youth production was prompt free and whilst I don’t think the script was a composition of genius, there were good performances from a cast that worked well together. I laughed out loud twice but found the last, more serious section awkward. No fault of the cast or Director, it was just how it had been written. I did a little research and it seems that this piece ran for less than a year, being replaced at the Haymarket by Silly Cow, another Elton piece, this time written for Dawn French. Thank you for having me Sharnbrook Mill, you should be very proud of this production.