Royal Court Theatre, London – until 19 May 2018
I have a love for shows with shiny, sparkly packaging that, underneath this tinsel, have a web of big issues and questions. Instructions for Correct Assembly is just that type of play.
We’re set in a brightly coloured near-future where all lines are clean and perfect, and our homes are flat-pack friendly, easy-to-assemble sweet-coloured residences. It’s a little cartoon-ish and its SIMS-like quality and all that commentary on where we are heading in this world is apparent just from these fantastic visuals.
Enter Max (Jane Horrocks) and Hari (Mark Bonnar), a married couple who have taken their love for all things self-assemble that one step further and have bought themselves a do-it-yourself son. All his parts are in the box; all they must do is put him together, so a few Allen keys and some tight screws later, hey presto, we have Jan (Brian Vernel) a walking talking living doll. Errr, sorry… I meant, son.
And this set up is mined beautifully for laughs. Vernel is a dream as the programmed boy, constantly flipping through different settings as his new parents flick through his remote control trying to find the right personality (and level of cheek) that works for them. But there is so much more going on here in Thomas Eccleshare’s insightful writing.
First up, this grabs parenting by the collar with all its observations on its stresses and strains, its pleasures and pains… How it never lives up to expectations. It even weaves in a delicious thread of competitive narcissism as Hari and Max are only too keen to show off their perfect new son to their friends and neighbours.
There is clever commentary on the very purpose and role of parenting itself here – should we shape and mould children to our image and our standards? And when does this behaviour overstep that fine line of guiding and supporting?
But this play would be little more than a carefree comedy if it wasn’t masking a heart of grief. For this isn’t the first time Max and Hari have been parents and the slow reveal of their ‘failed’ previous efforts give this production depth and resonance, bringing in the huge and magnificent point that in our increasingly ‘everything can be perfect’ world, we have to build in a tolerance for failure, mistakes and forgiveness – with ourselves as much as with others – or otherwise we are going top lose the very essence of what makes us human.
There are a couple of occasions where you feel director Hamish Pirie is a bit mesmerised by the design and there’s a sense of the lily being a bit over-gilded. For example, I can see the lure of the robotic computer game-style movements as the human characters shuffle between scenes but it’s a little overdone and, on reflection, can seem a little contradictory to a key theme in Thomas’s writing of the examination of what is human and what we are running from/to.
There’s also a big design reveal two-thirds of the way in, the kind that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Almeida’s Our Town, or even the Court’s own The Nether. But here it isn’t needed, doesn’t add much and it’s even a little confusing.
But these are small gripes that are easily overlooked and couldn’t detract me from the smart wonderfulness of this production. Instructions for Correct Assembly is kooky and clever. It takes parenting in all its joys and grief, mixes it with our increasingly amoral contemporary society, and packages it up in a in production.