In the first half of the 1980’s, Britain briefly led the world in high-tech electronics – and the country’s unlikely standard-bearer was a balding, bearded intellectual, by the name of Clive Sinclair. Famous for his shoddily-made but technically advanced computers, Sinclair was ultimately eclipsed by Alan Sugar, the brash founder of competing electronics firm Amstrad. Together In Electric Dreams joins the story at the very end of that rivalry, as the two men meet in a sushi restaurant to negotiate the dismemberment of Sinclair’s collapsing empire.
The tension between the two tycoons is simple to explain: Sinclair is cerebral and quixotic, obsessed by the possibility of changing the world, while the streetwise Sugar is concerned with nothing more than what seems likely to sell. Sinclair worries about the future for his workforce, and the commitments he’s made to his customers; Sugar wants to close down the factories and move production to Taiwan. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of storyline – but the script makes those points over and over again, like a computer program stuck in an endless loop.
On the night I attended, understudy Steve Cain delivered an impressive portrayal of Alan Sugar, with just a hint of crass thuggishness to embody his famously street-fighting business style. And actor Daniel Thackeray – who’s also the playwright – makes a believable and interesting character from Sinclair. He’s aloof and arrogant, but he isn’t dislikeable; Thackeray captures a sense of eccentric detachment from the world around him, with a corresponding inability to face up to the reality that the company he founded is now doomed to fail.
Once again though, too much time is spent assessing the reasons for that failure, at the cost of a genuinely engaging analysis of the characters. Don’t get me wrong here: there was a time in my life when I cared deeply about the merits of Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum, but that time was 30 years ago.
The sad thing is that the heavy narrative suppresses an appealing, light-hearted humour, which – when it’s allowed to poke through – utterly transforms the mood of the play. There’s one fine early joke involving wasabi, made all the funnier by being so comprehensively foreshadowed, and a gloriously farcical moment when Sugar drives a C5 (don’t get too excited though, the notorious electric tricycle remains firmly off-stage). Most surprisingly of all, the action ends in a bizarre but somehow fitting finale – which, despite its incongruity, sent me bouncing out of the theatre on an energetic high.
Ironically then, the conflict between the two men at the heart of the play is echoed in the script itself. The “Sinclair” approach – educating the audience, studying the technical background, analysing the social context – clashes with the “Sugar” technique, of cracking out whatever will please the crowd. History records that it’s Sugar who succeeded. But to my regret, it’s Sinclair who seems to be in the driving seat here.