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Production

Alex: Live on Stage

Company

Eleanor Lloyd Productions

Reviewer

Vivienne Tseng

Date

03/10/2008

Time

8.00pm

Place

Jubilee Hall

Rating

***1/2

2D and not 2D

Baby name books write that Alex is a short form of Alexander, which means helper and defender of mankind. I can't help but think that in shortening Alexander to Alex, some of that heroism is lost. Most Alexes I know talk too much and smirk a lot. The Alex played by Robert Bathurst is no different, but in addition to talking too much and smirking a lot, he cheats and grovels and does whatever it takes to get his way.

First taking form in Daily Telegraph comic strips in the 80s, Alex is the brainchild of Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor. He is a City of London banker barely clinging to solvency despite financial downturns. The strip is said to offer an insider's view of the world of finance and the lifestyles of its denizens. Alex is married to Penny, and their relationship is one of the issues that come under scrutiny in this theatrical production.

The loosely tied string of events that makes up Alex's adventures for this production offers plenty of opportunities for one-liners about Alex's ignorance of the state of his marriage and his absence of any moral compass. But, jokes aside, Alex was never my friend - he was too mean and moved too fast and talked too much for me to keep up. Due to a resourcefulness born of desperation, he keeps one step ahead of the plot, but this puts him far ahead of the audience too - and audiences prefer to be one step ahead, or at least on the same level as that characters they are watching.

We are introduced to Alex as he is dropped off at his porch, drunk as a skunk, and he proceeds to sneak up the stairs to avoid waking his wife. Alas, he is caught. What can Alex say to get out of this pickle? "Good morning dear, I was just leaving for work. Bloody early morning meeting, cross-continental time zones, you know. I was trying so hard not to wake you."

Later, at work, Alex discovers a financial boo boo relating to one of his biggest clients, Mr Hardcastle, and he brings his Eurotrash junior, Sebastien, to find a back door out of the mess. Along the way, Alex learns that Sebastien, whom he treats like a dog, is his boss's illegitimate son. Also, his wife leaves him, which Alex wouldn't mind so much, were it not that he needs her to keep his job - so he gives in to her blackmail to take her shopping and on holiday. And this, after a twist of events and a showdown with his boss, is where we find Alex at the end: on a moonlit beach with his wife serving him drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Perhaps because of its comic strip origins, the play's events are overly episodic so that the audience, even though caught up in the action, never gets the chance to be immersed emotionally. The performance was basically one-and-a-half hours of Alex making snarky comments, with bits of situational humour thrown in. A shorter performance which cut out some of the more overlong scenes might have made the show less tedious, and Alex's rhetoric would have been less tiresome and better appreciated.

West-African-born, British theatre actor Robert Bathurst took on the challenge of portraying the comic strip hero, Alex, in what was essentially a one man show. He played the role of Alex live and in person, while the rest of the characters were 2D, animated projections, whom he reported the speech of or gave voice to directly. The cleverness of the latter was that it was difficult to tell whether Alex was mocking the other characters when he took on their voices (for example, he put on a mock French accent as Sebastien, saying, "Ooh la la, Alex, you like my purple pants no?") or whether we were supposed to accept that these were simply the characters' "real" voices. At other times, Alex would simply "report" what the other party said, as in the scene where he begged his wife to return home. Here, he groveled at the feet of the animated projection of his wife, and "listened" to her talk, then he replied, "What? You want me to take you out for dinner? What for? You have a microwave and a fridge!"

As might be expected from a production that once played Broadway, the mechanics were quite stunning. Onstage there were numerous white screens on which characters, scenery or captions would appear, recalling the show's comic strip origins. The timing of the projections had to be completely in sync with Alex's actions. A character projected on the screen would respond to Alex and Alex to it, so essentially Bathurst was acting across the set. During the picnic scene, for example, he set up a picnic mat and basket and placed two similar screens around it - one housed his wife and the other his boss. He took turns running between them, tirelessly placating both with near-perfect timing. For being able to pull this stunt off, and with flair, Bathurst deserves a round of applause. The production crew: Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for video design, Phil Eddolls for set design, Colin Grenfell for lighting design and Ed Clarke for sound design, all deserve a hearty pat on the back too.

If I'd grown up reading Alex comics, maybe I would have deeper sympathy for the character and like him more. But Alex belongs to the generation before mine: he is a product of 80s corporate culture, and is now an outdated, alien and dying breed. From what I could tell, most of the audience enjoyed Alex more than I did - perhaps nostalgia heightened their enjoyment of the production. Sadly for me, this was not the case. Still, I was susceptible to Bathurst's charms and the skillful, invisible direction that guided his moves, so that I was nonetheless swept up in the action and found myself laughing along with the rest.

First Impression

Alex is a comic strip brought to life by mixing a live performanceby Robert Bathurst with 2D projections. The story plays out an adventure from the life of the eponymous lead and, as always, Alex's utter lack of self-awareness is fodder for mockery. Bathurst's energy is inexhaustible and the show is entertaining enough, but it never reaches beyond the superficial. You laugh at Alex as much as you laugh with him because the show never quite gets you to sympathize with him or take his side. The play dips in particular during the more emotional scenes - you will find yourself tapping your feet, waiting, in between the jokes. Alex is jolly good fun for an evening if you have no plans, but otherwise you might think twice about catching it.


"Alex was never my friend - he was too mean and moved too fast and talked too much for me to keep up"

Credits

Director Phelim McDermott

Video Design Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer for Fifty Nine Productions

Animation Charles Peattie

Set Design Phil Eddolls

Lighting Design Colin Grenfell

Sound Design Ed Clarke

Alex is Robert Bathurst

More Reviews of Productions by Vivienne Tseng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.