Two titans of the UK’s electronics industry have a date with fate in this dramatisation of a little known historic encounter. On one side, Sir Clive Sinclair – inventor of the Spectrum. On the other, Alan Sugar in his pre-Apprentice days, but at this point the young upstart of Amstrad. Sinclair’s economic fortunes are dire, but this can be a dinner with only one winner…
Based on true events, Together in Electric Dreams sees Sinclair and Sugar meet in a Japanese restaurant to thrash out a deal to purchase Sinclair’s assets before the company goes under. What follows is a superbly written game between the two giants as they attempt to outmanoeuvre each other.
Whilst this sounds like a fairly dry topic for, what is effectively a two-and-a-bit hander, the reality is that this is a witty, funny and charming piece of theatre that is easily the highlight of the Fringe festival for me. Daniel Thackeray, also writer and director, is the mirror image of Sinclair, not only in style, but in mannerisms and performance. He embodies the very British spirit Sinclair is associated with in his calm and polite manner. Matthew O’Neill plays Alan Sugar, another uncanny and pitch-perfect performance. He brings more to the table than just the cocky, brash Londoner that’d you expect to see. The conviction of the two sells the play as the pair clash, yet there are also many funny moments that make the play a winner.
Ultimately, the play hinges around Sinclair and Sugar’s battle over the business. Sinclair is fighting for his own future and the future of his workforce whilst Sugar is just interested in profit, profit and more profit by outsourcing production to Taiwan and maximising on existing products. What follows is a fascinating lesson in business practice as the contrasting personalities grate against each other.
Foreknowledge of Sinclair and Sugar is not required, as the pair are painted in such intricate strokes that their divided, yet ultimately linked, personalities come across vividly. From Sinclair’s gentlemanly demeanour through to his obsession with aesthetic and miniaturisation contrasting with the gruff Sugar that we’ve expected from The Apprentice. Yet this is a Sugar at the early part of the career that he is probably best known for. His initial slimyness gives way to a far more complex picture. O’Neill’s hair is slicked back a la Gordon Gecko, but wisely, the play diverts from the obvious styling of Alan Sugar as a the villain of the piece.
For those with fond memories of Sinclair pocket calculators or even his failed C5 vehicle there is much to enjoy. Many props make an appearance over the course of the play and there is even a hilarious video sequence involving the famous C5 – specially recorded for this play. As an inventor, Thackeray plays him with a dichotomy between saving his business and his people working for him. Clearly too trusting about certain aspects of business, his flawed personality comes across well. One exchange about a list of Sinclair’s failed products (“There’s also the QL”, “More like f’ing hell!”) is acted beautifully. Even if you don’t know about Sinclair’s products, the baffling list of acronyms only serves to highlight why Sugar is only interested in the existing products – products that can physically be sold and aren’t just an idea.
One of the most frightening things about the play is that despite the opposing attitudes of Sinclair and Sugar – one wants to keep production of Spectrums in the UK, whilst the other is all about outsourcing, outsourcing, outsourcing – this is less than twenty years ago, and whilst Sinclair comes off looking like a dinosaur, nowadays Alan Sugar isn’t looking so hot in the electronics market either. Sinclair was a man out of time – always in some respects behind the time, but in many ways ahead of his time as well. In many respects, this is a terribly sad story – the end of the electronics empire that for one moment was shining brightly in the UK.
A charming portrayal of a business meeting that would forever change the dynamic of the British electronics industry with themes still resonant today, Together in Electric Dreams is the highlight in a very competitive Fringe festival. A topic tinged with sadness but portrayed in such an affectionate and funny way – including some surprises, Together in Electric Dreams will leave you with a song in your heart.
The Fiction Stroker gives Together in Electric Dreams five strokes out of five: