Royal Court Theatre, London – until 19 May 2018
Perfection is something we’re all supposed to strive for, living the ideal Instagrammable life, to be seen in the right places, eat the right food, wear the right clothes and create a home that is the exact balance of calmly-designed refuge and welcoming social space. What other people think, and all kinds of external judgment have grown in importance, and as a society we crave some kind of external validation to know that we are worthy, accepted, good enough to belong. And, whatever our internal thoughts, however much turmoil exists beneath the surface, we need to paint on a smile, to show the world that we are carefree, happy and perfect.
Nowhere is this pressure more keenly felt than in the modern cult of parenting, where the need to be seen as a perfect mother or father is steeped in expectation. Whether you exclusively feed your child organic handmade meals, where they go to school, what skills they develop, their hobbies, friends and future path are all mini-reflections on an individual’s parenting technique. Thomas Eccleshare’s new play Instructions for Correct Assembly goes to the heart of this quest for perfection, using the story of a couple who choose a robot son to fulfill their slightly confused lives. And while Eccleshare has plenty to say about Artificial Intelligence (AI), our desire for control over any object we create, and the convenience of our flatpack world, this is really an emotional and beautifully told family story about grief and guilt.
Harry and his wife Max need a project, they’ve put together the wardrobe and have all the furniture they need, but something is missing. Spotting a magazine advert, the couple order a new son, a mechanical young adult, and spend many happy hours putting “Jan” together, adjusting his personality settings and teaching him to reflect their liberal middle-class values, all to make him perfect. But, as Jan’s occasional embarrassing malfunctions increase, and their neighbours express concern, Harry and Max are forced to recall their history with similarly-aged son Nick. It soon becomes clear that the couple are haunted by a past they can never change and that their life is far from ideal, but is Jan really the second chance they so desperately need?
Instructions for Correct Assembly is a subtly constructed play in which Eccleshare comments on the consumerist nature of our society, where each home can have the same pieces of replicated furniture, a Stepford Wives reality where personality, difference and complexity are conveniently designed out of our lives. In Hamish Pirie’s production, we first see the couple via a curtained hatch, a small window through which a series of scenes are played along a fast-moving conveyer belt, as if the very theatre is dispatching identikit pre-packaged scenes. It’s some time before the front panel is lifted to reveal the full interior of their room, while, as events play out and we get to know the couple, further elements of their home are slowly revealed.
Eventually the full breadth of humanity is unveiled, complete with a “living wall” of plants at the rear of the stage, and room bathed in natural sunshine from the skylight windows. By this point in the story, every layer of packaging and padding has been removed from the characters and we see the full and complicatedly rich life they once lived with Nick. Cai Dyfan’s set is a marvel, superbly representing not just the flat-pack world the couple inhabit, but in creating layers of meaning that help the audience to understand the psychological journey of the characters. Everything we see deliberately looks like a DIY job, put together from a pack, shiny and bland, while the remaining set is constructed from boxes and a permanent dusting of packing chips – a whole world of convenience, home delivery and customer service phone lines. Towards the end, the walls and panels begin to slot back into place, and you realise that what you’re really seeing is a shroud of grief, confining and restricting Harry and Max until their whole world has reduced to that tiny curtained window of empty, soulless necessity.
And, slowly, subtly Eccleshare makes you feel their pain, which, like a dull ache that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore, grows gently throughout the production until the extent of their loss and delusion becomes quite desperate. Wrapped in an AI-inspired tale that wouldn’t be out of place as a Black Mirror episode, the writer initially wrong-foots you, making you expect a clichéd story about the worrying effect of machines on the human condition, but for Eccleshare the presence of Jan is almost a red herring, he is just the excuse to explore the couple’s pre-existing guilt and sense of failure – their obsession with perfection stems from believing they got it so wrong.
Intercutting the two stories – with Jan and Nick played by the same actor – is an excellent device, demonstrating just how much is at stake for Harry and Max. Director Pirie exerts great control over the way scenes unfold, so what is happening soon becomes apparent without any wasteful exposition. This 100-minute show progresses with much hilarity at Jan’s mistakes, crudeness and failure to read the situation, culminating in a disastrous dinner party with neighbours Laurie and Paul (the representative Jones’s the couple want to keep up with, played by Michele Austin and Jason Barnett) and their daughter Amy who is purposefully “perfect”. Jan’s muddled logic and crass conversation are a high point, but only serve to emphasise the growing focus on Harry and Max’s grief which slowly and unexpectedly hits you with an emotional punch that is quite poignant.
Leading the cast is Mark Bonnar as Harry, a man who has internalised every bit of emotion and leaps enthusiastically from project to project because then he never has to think about what really happened. Harry seems like a good man, a well-regarded friend and pleasant company but needs to be constantly distracted from his own thoughts. In the flashback sections Bonnar also shows us that Harry as a father was a slightly softer touch than his wife, more forgiving and arguably more hurt by his failure to properly connect with his grown-up son.
Crucially, there are no histrionics, no elaborate weeping and wailing, nor at any point does Eccleshare let Harry or Max say how they feel, all of this is down to the actors to convey, and Bonnar does this superbly. Everything – humour and tragedy – is played straight, letting the writing do the work, and through that Bonnar elicits a quiet devastation that he brings into focus for the audience as the show unfolds, and without a single tear makes us feel the full emotional weight of a man drowning in his grief, clinging to a dream concept of a second chance and plastering-on a public jollity, even for his wife, with his true feelings clearly miles beneath.
Jane Horrocks as wife Max is a more remote figure and it’s not until much later in the play that her part of the story really comes to life, but when it does, her quiet housewife exterior belies a much harder centre. In retrospect Horrocks suggests that Max acted hastily, that her past actions are a source of much regret, but in the flashback scenes with Nick we see instead a woman choosing to act decisively, at a loss how to proceed and taking the only course of action she thinks will work. And while Max is less overtly emotional than her husband, Horrocks suggests the mutual pretence between the couple in order to survive.
Playing both Jan and Nick is demanding for Brian Vernel who frequently switches character between scenes to considerable effect. His Jan is almost imperceptibly human, and in keeping with the subtle approach taken to the rest of the play, there are no overt references to his mechanical interior, no attempt at a synthesised voice or juddering cyberman movements, which is entirely the right call. Instead, Jan’s purposefully bland personality is only slightly heightened, just out of joint with everyone else to draw attention to his status, and Vernel elicits much of the humour from Jan’s shocking malfunctions.
By contrast as Nick, he is a grouchy, frustrated and troubled young man, eager to escape the cloying attentions of his parents and fully, complicatedly human. Far from the perfect image presented by neighbour Amy (Shaniqua Okwok) who wins a place at Oxford, Vernel’s Nick is on a parallel track to self-destruction. What is so interesting about Eccleshare’s writing and Vernel’s performance is that for all his complications, the audience is encouraged to see that the flesh and blood Nick is preferable to his robotic replacement, however much pain he causes.
In what has been a slightly over-earnest Winter season for the Royal Court, Instructions for Correct Assembly is their best show since Anatomy of a Suicide last summer, and both use a family structure as the basis for explaining the long-term effects of grief and loss. Eccleshare’s play could lose the slightly awkward choreographed movement sections between scenes which has the actors robotically shuffling around, the only misfire in an otherwise restrained and thoughtfully created piece that questions why we all strive so hard to suggest a veneer of perfection. Perhaps because, underneath all those layers of polish, there are truths we just don’t want to face.