ATSP And Eleanor Lloyd





Director: Phelim McDermott


Leicester Square Theatre


25 November - 20 December, 2008







A review by Mags Gaisford for EXTRA! EXTRA!


 The ‘Alex’ of the title refers to Charles Peattie and Russell Taylors’ multi - award winning cartoon, which presents ‘an insider’s view of the Corporate Financial world and the lifestyles of its denizens’. Its eponymous hero, Alex Masterly, Investment Banker, has a tragic and celebrated flaw. He is so thoroughly institutionalised as to see his whole world through the lenses of the ‘greed, duplicity and short - term thinking’ that are the cogs of cut - throat office politics.

Now a performance has been devised to bring the comic strip off the page. Robert Bathurst is the incarnation of Alex. He interacts with cartoons and animated projections on screens dotted around the stage, to bring the ‘Alex’ environment to some sort of half - life into which we are invited.

This world is of the painful comedy genre shared by the recent TV series ‘Nathan Barley’: and, to me, shares its problematic position. Both are funniest to those who understand its language.  Barley, parody of the fashion - obsessed Shoreditch ‘idiot’, is most popular among 20 - somethings  in the media industry. ‘Alex’’s audience is replete with pearls, pinstripes and knowing laughter.

The cartoon strip has a unique power. Using a marginal space in the newspaper it can, like the jester, affect a deceptive humility and throwaway frivolity to trip up the big wigs whose voices surround it. It uses brevity and wit to voice powerful social critique. Alex’s utter lack of human sentiment is laughable: and this is what the comics capture like nothing else can. So why make him human?

In a sense, this is what the play’s about: Alex’s determination to remain in a one - dimensional world of caricatures. Compassion is a disability that could cost him his salary.  The caricature is, of course, a sharp political tool: but in the wrong hands it can fix shallow stereotypes and consolidate prejudice. I felt uneasy when Alex’s repellent summaries of the - admittedly equally grotesque - characters around him received the biggest laughs. This is fine, as long as the laughter is at, rather than with, him. As long as no empathy is expected for our hero. ‘people say I’m a terrible snob but I’m not - I’m very good at it’ .

The programme explains that Alex, in negotiating life’s trials, must retain his   ‘inherent complacency’ and ‘wholly mercenary and materialistic attitude to life’. Survival is a complicated juggling act, where he must keep hold of his wife and his job without compromising his superficiality. In the office he must find inventive ways of maximising his salary whilst keeping work to the absolute minimum. Daily tasks include finding places to sleep un - disturbed and dodging meetings to attend recreational sporting events. At home, his wife must be kept sweet enough to attend corporate hospitality gigs whilst issuing no demands on his free time. Its creators researched the grisly tricks of the trade through 40 - odd contacts who work in the City, then condensed the worst attitudes and behaviours into one loathsome individual.

The plot involves both aspects of Alex’s life being thrown into jeopardy. His wife leaves him abruptly, with no ‘period of notice’. He faces the horrors of life outside the City’s ‘square mile’ when his job is threatened by a botched sales deal. Alex, at the height of distress:
 ‘I don’t claim to be a very deep person, but this experience is challenging me’.

Alex must win back his security with some shrewd manipulation. The business plot, for me, was lost in a sea of financial jargon involving mergers, surplus, deficits and some new product called ‘promulgated amalgahide’. It sees him, eventually, torn between his bitter wife and an unreliable new client in the gardens of the Operatic Glyndebourne.

Each scene is framed by cartoon text and accompanied by very slick cartoon sound effects. The gaps between ‘strips’ are punctuated with the song ‘the best things in life are free’. With Bathurst as the only real actor in his world, it takes a while to adjust to the lack of human presence involved. If the level of suspension - of - disbelief required can, gradually, be attained, it is due to Bathurst’s acutely dynamic and deftly quick - witted skill.  As well as providing the whole vocal commentary (including the lines of his cartoon colleagues), Bathurst manoeuvers props and screens to create some sophisticated scenic situations. He does this with infallible comic timing to make it seem so natural: when in fact, one slip - up on his part would shatter the whole illusion.

There are some good pure animation sequences to break the pace when the jargon gets too dizzying, including an extended fantasy fight between Alex and his boss - as - dinosaurs.
‘Alex’ of the comic strip is so unbearable he’s funny. His freakish, Edward Scissor - heart character is reassuringly fictional as a line drawing with a bulbous nose. The brevity of the cartoon is a huge part of its charm. So it is disturbing to see him brought to life, and for a full one hour and twenty minutes.

 The prospect of a real life Alex is too upsetting to entertain. Perhaps this is the point: how does  an investment banker have a successful career and remain human? In a clever ironic technical manoever, Bathurst reaches behind cartoon projections to take objects from scenes, only to have them disappear in his hands: perhaps highlighting further the futility of materialism?

 Perhaps I’m taking it too seriously. Ultimately, reassurance can be found in the fact that ‘Alex’ remains in his cartoon world. His incarnation is in fact a very talented actor and his creators artists who ride Brompton bicycles and collect model dinosaurs. Will ‘Alex’’s audience consist entirely of corporate types who find catharsis in his cartoons? I’d rather leave them to it, safe in the knowledge that he’s tucked up in a comic strip in a sympathetic newspaper.





0844 8472475

£45 business class seats, £29.50 regular seats, £12 slips
6 Leicester Place, London WC2H 7BX




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