Gasp! @ The Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA

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By Samuel J. Cox

When English-expatriate Ben Elton (1959-) was invited by Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Kate Cherry to compose a new work for the main stage, he elected instead to revisit his first play ‘Gasping!’ (1990), and reimagine it in a contemporary Australian context.

Now set in Western Australia’s not-too-distant future, where ‘mining is the only game in town’, Elton’s story centres on the corporate bulls working for mining company Lockheart Industries. When owner Chifley Lockheart (Steven Rooke) announces to his ‘main men’ that their ability to continue making money hand over fist is jeopardised by the dearth of minerals left to be torn from the soil, it’s up to the clever, but naïve, Phil (Damon Lockwood), and the smarmy Sandy (Greg McNeill) to right the ship. Young and hungry for money and status, Phil is inspired by his asthmatic muse Peggy (Lucy Goleby) to create the ‘Suck & Blow’, a filtering machine that produces cleaner air.

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Unsurprisingly, the capitalist dogs at Lockheart exploit Phil’s philanthropic idea, turning it into a way to privatise the air. Ethics are then discarded as the business prioritises profit over human life. A little over two hours (including interval), the play satirically tears into the regularly disgusting, unscrupulous behaviour of big business and the advertising industry (which is unexpected considering Rio Tinto is the State Theatre Company’s major partner). As Australia now struggles with questions regarding mining, what we do with our carbon, and the longevity of our resources sector, the timing is perfect.

Eventually, real eyes, realise, real lies and Phil can no longer rationalise the mass suffering his creation has caused. At its core, the play is a fairly standard story of moral corruption and eventual salvation, but it is packed with hilarious pop culture references that’ll leap out at a younger audience (as recent as Emma Watson’s United Nations address, and the ‘scandal’ in the trashy tabloid press about Renee Zellweger’s appearance at the Elle Women In Hollywood Awards), and crammed with Elton’s political opinions as he paints Australia’s politicians with the same damning brush.

Elton’s script is in capable hands, as the five-person cast were seasoned professionals, strutting about the stage oozing confidence and pluck. Lockwood is superb as the lead, and Caroline Brazier is a delight as the acerbic, high-flying vixen who leads ‘Image Control’, the advertising company brought in to sell ‘Suck & Blow’. With roles in ‘Rake’, ‘Terra Nova’, and ‘Packed to the Rafters’, here she is a femme fatale, tempting and manipulating Phil and Sandy as she awkwardly totters around the stage in a pencil skirt.

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Reminiscent of Elton’s brilliantly funny and ridiculous 1980s TV series ‘Blackadder’ (which starred the Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry dream team), razor sharp insults fly and the banter is superb.

The work is filled with the conventions and tropes that define his oeuvre, and the macabre conclusion, typical of Elton, serves as a reminder not to take life too seriously, as no one gets out alive anyway.

Co-presented by Queensland Theatre Company, and directed by its Artistic Director Wesley Enoch, Black Swan has saved its best for last.

‘Gasp!’ runs until November 9.

Images by Gary Marsh.

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