Royal Court Theatre, London – until 19 May 2018
We begin with a tiny proscenium box, an almost Punch-and-Judy window, framing Harry and his wife Max: nice middle-aged people, evoked to sitcom perfection by a bearded, tinkeringly-engineerish Mark Bonnar and a bright Jane Horrocks. They are ordering a DIY kit for Prime next-day delivery and starting to fuss over it. Meanwhile, neighbours at a dinner party boast of their Oxford daughter and brilliant younger siblings. We gather that Max and Harry had one son, Nick. And what happened to him, well, could happen to anyone. Neighbour’s brilliant daughter was sorry to miss the funeral.
So far, so middle-class observational. But the first bit of the kit completed, as they prattle on, is a foot. Then a leg. We guess that the little screen will widen, and widen again, and so does the significance of this arresting, original sci-fi domestic tale. They are building a robot, specification “white and polite”. A young man. It keeps them busy. It looks, the uneasy neighours notice, rather like the late Nick. Indeed it and Nick are both played by Brian Vernel, who in a series of flashbacks shows us how the living boy ran off the rails, stole to buy drugs, ran away…
The robot will give no such trouble, though for a while it is both creepy and funny as the couple struggle to programme it to their values, nervously zapping the remote to correct “his” attitudes and language. Young Vernel is quite superb, an arresting and technically intensely skilful performer zapping in and out of malfunction as the robot and teenage rebellion as Nick, often confusing us into thinking Nick reformed before he died (“I’m gonna do it this time Mum”) , until a malfunction reveals it as a delusion programmed by the sad parents.
Hilariously he flicks between speaking as an ideal, ambitious, nice-minded perfect son and a complete horror picked up from trash TV, as the parents dive for the remote-control. Sometimes there is an eerie sense that the robot’s AI is picking up the resentments each partner has against the other over the dead son.
Yet it is a profoundly compassionate, intelligent, heartbreaking play: about parenthood and grief, self-delusion, and the commodification and competitiveness surrounding the idea of an ideal family (Horrocks is happiest when her son seems to be enjoying ironing) . It is about the unintentional wrongs we all do, the terrible sorrow of love, the dogged need to carry on and seem cosy after a climactic disaster, and the painful empty-nest longing to have young hopeful life around the house.
It is terrific, and a delight to see the development of Thomas Eccleshare (I loved his PASTORAL at Hightide years ago). Vernel is a talent to watch, and Hamish PIrie’s direction is sharp and sure-footed, handling the deliberate confusions well. It does not need the interludes of robotic, stylized ensemble movement between scenes, which feel as if Pirie thinks we’re too dim to grasp the idea. But that is the tiniest of flaws in the most thoughtful sci-fi since THE NETHER.