Gasping on National Tour

Motormouth comedian, playwright and author Ben Elton wrote this satire on the world of advertising, marketing and business in 1990, midway between his TV successes with Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line. And Gasping is Elton at his linguistically dexterous best, his executive characters networking in the kind of jargon that would give anyone a headache in the real world.

Starring two of Britain's finest comedy actors in David Haig (best loved as the hapless Bernard in Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Philip, and Neil Stacy (Duty Free) as his boss Sir Chiffley Lockheart, it's a stylised and amusing piece of work.

The satire has dated and the comedy is no longer alternative, but the tale is a clever one and the two stars - alongside Stephen Mapes as junior executive Sandy and Iona Grant as his wonderfully over-the-top girlfriend Kirsten - present it with speed and clarity under the direction of Paul Jepson.

Philip is ordered to come up with a unique product that'll be wanted by everyone. He dreams up the Suck and Blow, a device which purifies air from the impurities of life, work, traffic and bodily functions, and delivers pure oxygen back into the atmosphere.

The Suck and Blow, apart from providing a source for numerous double entendres, is a runaway success until greedy consumers begin stockpiling their air, the planet becomes deprived of oxygen, people start suffocating, a national Breathathon is held to raise funds for air-starved countries, and Philip finally comes to his senses. But by this time, commercial priorities have taken over, Lockheart refuses to give up his money, or people back their air, and the story twists comfortably to an unexpected yet not terribly imaginative denouement.

Haig delivers a fine performance as workaholic Philip, brilliant in the boardroom but inept with women, and his embarrassing yet touching scenes as he tries to play for power-dressing ad exec Kirsten are a joy. Stacy and Mapes have less impact, but the oafish boss and ambitious, sycophantic junior are very much secondary characters in a play which relies on its love-interest sub-plot for laughs almost as much as its story.

Ten years ago this was satire at its best. Now, while it may not exactly be a breath of fresh air, it's still pure theatre.

Elizabeth Ferrie

Gasping tours to:

Theatre Royal, Nottingham to 4 March
Milton Keynes Theatre 6-11 March
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 13-18 March
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 20-25 March
Palace Theatre, Manchester 27 March- 1 April
Grand Opera House, York 3-8 April
Grand Theatre, Wolverhamton 10-15 April
Theatre Royal, Brighton 17-22 April
Arts Theatre, Cambridge 24-29 April
Grand Theatre, Blackpool 1-6 May
His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen 8-13 May
King's Theatre, Edinburgh 15-20 May
Playhouse, Oxford 22-27 May
Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield 29 May-3 June
Theatre Royal, Bath 5-10 June