Back to the drawing board

On stage, Alex remains as sketchy as the comic strip that inspired it

<strong>Alex</strong> Arts

Can you really put a comic strip on the stage? Many people have tried, and here at the tiny Arts Theatre Robert Bathurst, last seen playing an MP in Whipping It Up, makes the latest attempt with his depiction of the waggish financier Alex Masterley. Alex, the creation of Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor, appears every day in black and white on the pages of the Telegraph (having started at the short-lived London Daily News in 1987, and subsequently transferred to the Independent).

Any daily strip that has survived for more than 20 years has an independent life force, but wresting Peattie and Taylor's pen-and-ink City comedy from print into flesh and blood is something of a struggle. The challenge is made even steeper by this being a one-man show. The gag is that, while Alex is played by a living person, the other dramatis personae - his boss Rupert, his mild-mannered friend Clive and the ghastly Eurotrash work-experience youth Sebastien - are all computer-animated drawings from the strip, projected on to a series of large, white boards. Bathurst must therefore try to bring Alex to life while constantly plunging back into the world of the strip.

There is nothing wrong with the trickery; Bathurst pulls off chatting to his 2D friends with ease. At one point, the cartoon drawing of Sebastien gives Bathurst a cartoon parcel, which he adroitly transforms into a real object. It was fun, albeit in a "look at how technically clever we are" way.

Anyone who is familiar with the director Phelim McDermott's work will have seen this sort of wizardry before. His Shockheaded Peter (2001) was a triumphant mixture of computer geekery and awesome theatricality. Besides, this sort of Tomorrow's World jiggery-pokery has been going on in fringe and stand-up venues for years.

The show is at its best when Bathurst forgets about all the hi-tech shtick and concentrates on interacting with the audience. If he gets bored with the acting gig, Bathurst should consider a run at the Comedy Store, as his natural authority (or pomposity) makes him a perfect foil for humour. Imploring us all to turn off our mobile phones, he encourages people to hold up their handsets. When we do, he savages us and our tiny Nokias. "Call that a mobile phone?" he enquires, brandishing a 1985-style brick. "Loser. This is what I call a mobile phone!"

Looking a bit like Gordon Ramsay in a pinstriped suit, and backed by snatches of the Flying Lizards' classic version of "Money", Bathurst does his best to give us a run around the least offensive prejudices of a privileged City lifestyle. Hedge-fund traders are all jumped-up Essex louts, French men are lascivious wretches, wives are long-suffering and everyone oop north is tasteless. Peattie's animation is terrific; one sequence where the hapless Clive literally jumps out of his skin is a joy, and it's well written, too. "People say I'm a terrible snob," says Alex at one point. "But I'm not. I'm really good at it!"

The whole point about Alex is that he represents the acceptable face of corporate finance. Yes, he's a serial shagger and a snob, but he's really rather lovable - and, being a man who must sleep off his hangovers on the office floor, only human. But while this rigid archetype is acceptable - desirable, even - in a four-picture comic strip that its fans probably take all of 90 seconds to digest, it is not so welcome in a 90-minute piece of theatre.

The show fails to take the character into any new domains or reach for any new emotional peaks. For all Bathurst's engaging banter with his monochrome chums and his ease at inhabiting the stage in a solo show, the paucity of the pretence was alarming, at times. Whereas Shockheaded Peter, which also sought to bring a figure from print into life, was plumped up with zinging, alarming vitality, one can't help but conclude that Alex on stage is as sketchy as the source material that inspired it.

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Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan