Alex, Arts Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

It's a long time since I've seen a man under 30 wearing a coat with a velvet collar, but I saw three of these types the other night – and not in some outpost of the Young Conservatives, either. The scene was, incongruously, the Arts Theatre in Newport Street in central London, the venue where Waiting for Godot – a piece not exactly designed to wow the velvet-collar brigade – had its British premiere 51 years ago.

How come? Well, the mystery is easily solved. It was the opening night of Alex, a theatre piece concocted from the comic strip about the eponymous, status-obsessed and amiably venal investment banker. Conceived and executed by Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor (who are also responsible for this stage version), the strip surfaced in 1987 in the short-lived London Daily News, appeared for a time in The Independent and is now lodged at The Daily Telegraph, which sponsors Phelim McDermott's production and even colonises a page of the programme to wish it "every success". Let's hope that their theatre critic is an "Alex" fan or, if not, can learn to become one sharp-ish.

When Caryl Churchill's Big Bang satire Serious Money hit the boards of the Royal Court (in the same year, significantly, as the "Alex" strip was born), the theatre was besieged by City hoorays revelling in the theatrical presentation of their misdeeds. It prompted my colleague Thomas Sutcliffe, then this newspaper's arts editor, to make the immortal remark that it was as if coach-loads of former Nazis were descending on a revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

The banking community were solidly represented at premiere of Alex and I should imagine that they will turn up in droves during the run. What could be nicer? Seventy-five minutes of having your values, psychology and foibles genially mocked, with loads of time afterwards to sink a few bottles of Bolly.

Ever since Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, we're used to watching human beings interact with cartoon characters on screen. It's a rarity on stage, though, and that gives this show its intriguing appeal. Alex materialises in the too, too solid, pink, pampered and just-starting-to-sag flesh of the perfectly cast Robert Bathurst. But all the locations and the other people (from long-suffering and futilely ovulating wife Penny to the pouting, posturing male French graduate assistant who turns out, ouch, to be the boss's son) appear in black-and-white animated comic strip on the assortment of small-ish screens dotted over the stage.

Visually, this is not quite as arresting as I had anticipated. There's one lovely moment when real-life Alex reaches into a cartoon and his arm becomes its sketched equivalent as it intercepts an object that takes a reverse journey from sketch to substance as he pulls it out. But such optical tricks are few and far between.

This example shows how good the script is, though, and how acute about the mindset of the merchant banker. Alex looks at the object (a flange widget manufactured by a firm to whom his bank are consultants) as though it were an alien species. Living in the spectral world of number-crunching, he finds it hard to credit that these numbers are connected to the mundane realities of life where the only bonus is simply surviving.

It's a shame that the plot does not take Alex into the more fantastical areas that the strip itself sometimes broaches, but Bathurst has perfect pitch as this genially snooty, weak operator. One of the best jokes is near the start when, arriving home at 4am and accidentally waking the wife, Alex pretends that he is in fact getting up for "a bloody early meeting" . If Alex were ever to read Twelfth Night, he would find that he has much in common with Sir Toby Belch.

Click here for Alex website

To 8 December (0870 060 1742)

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