Royal Court Theatre, London – until 19 May 2018
Instructions for Thomas Eccleshare’s Instructions for Correct Assembly:
Step 1: Take a Verity Bargate Award-winning (for Pastoral) playwright and give him his Royal Court debut with a gently futuristic play about families and failures and robot surrogates.
Step 2: Find a director with real previous in quirky stagings at the Royal Court (Goats, Who Cares, The Internet is Serious Business) and a designer up for the challenge of maintaining the ingenious and striking look of current main house productions with its middle-class modernity.
Step 3: Up the ante by introducing illusionist Paul Kieve into the mix to put together some properly mind-boggling trickery and have a crack stage management team under Kate Aisling Jones’ leadership support actor Brian Vernel in accomplishing said illusions.
Step 4: Pull together a top-notch cast including the always good Mark Bonnar (returning to the stage after six years) and the wonderful Jane Horrocks.
And the result is something that is really quite intriguing, if ultimately a little thin on the thematic areas it covers. The aesthetic is stunning – Cai Dyfan’s design, under the boldness and intricacy of Jack Knowles’ lighting, is a study in the complexity of human nature, the layers that can be peeled back, the images we wish to project to the outside world.
Eccleshare probes at something interesting too, in the way he presents Harry and Max, the parents who react to the death of their drug-addicted son by ordering a robot facsimile that they can, they hope, program into the ideal replacement. Things inevitably don’t go to plan but you can’t help but wish we had more detail to flesh out these people.
But maybe that’s the point. Vicki Manderson’s movement is used in scene changes to suggest that there’s something robotic about society as a whole, a glitch in the programming that means that this lack of humanity is systemic. The result may be that we’re not as moved as we feel we ought to be, though there’s much dark wit here, but maybe we’re the problem.