Brighton Fringe 2022
A troupe of highly-skilled improvisers present a range of classic improv games based on audience suggestions, but there’s a very big twist. One of the performers… isn’t one of us.
Imagine getting up onstage in front of an audience without the slightest idea of what you’re going to say or what the show is going to be about. Sounds like something out of a nightmare, right? Apparently some people actually enjoy it. Quite a lot of people. It’s a whole scene. It’s called improv.
But now imagine that one of your co-improvisers is removed from the stage and replaced by a computer AI, an AI trained not on the subtle intricacies of improvised comedy, but on raw text from newspapers and film scripts and Wikipedia. I mean, why would you even do that to yourself? More importantly for this review, can it possibly – and does it actually – work?
Why, yes, turns out it can and it does, because the five (human) improvisers are fine practitioners of their art. I’d single out the excellent Holly Mallett, the most energetic of the bunch, who’s really the driving force keeping everything ticking along, and Sarah Davies, who is perhaps armed with the quickest wit and keenest ability to link back to earlier themes. All five of them have superb moments of comedy during today’s hour of games (the others, for the record, are Boyd Branch, Julie Flower and Paul Little).
But what of their inorganic counterpart? Did it* hold its own in such talented comedy company? Ooooh, that’s a thorny one, which I will delight in struggling to put my finger on. Occasionally A.L.Ex’s interjections made me laugh out loud, but only when they were particularly nonsequiturish, the kind of things no human would say because they’re just too darn weird, and probably wouldn’t make us laugh from a human mouth. Whenever A.L.Ex came out with something acceptable and vaguely “intelligent”-sounding (which, to give huge credit to the programmers, was most of the time), something that actually helped the scene along, it wasn’t very funny. So there’s a weird rock-and-a-hard-place thing going on: we (and presumably the programmers) desperately want A.L.Ex to be a brilliant contributor and indistinguishable from a human performer – that’s surely the goal, as the interesting final “Turing test” game attests – but we far prefer it when A.L.Ex completely misses the mark and the whole edifice falls flat on its face.
Really, the comedy comes not from the robot itself, but from the predicament in which the robot’s presence puts the humans. There is no robot character in the scenes (though there is briefly a talking rock, stemming from an audience suggestion), so A.L.Ex must at all times be treated as if it is human, and I honestly cannot even begin to imagine how difficult this must be. It’s almost like the director has gone “Think you’re good improvisers do you? Well then let’s really f*** you up and see how you handle it.” And the more I think about it, boy do they handle it well.
But the performers aren’t even the ones with the hardest jobs here – getting this thing to work technically must have been a gargantuan undertaking. The main programmer of the project is Piotr Mirowski, who is also onstage as a sort of MC (he’s probably not an actor, though, and there’s an interesting moment right at the beginning when he and A.L.Ex have a presumably pre-scripted duologue, in which I distinctly feel that the robot’s delivery is more natural and human than the human’s). Piotr, together with Kory Mathewson and aforementioned improviser Boyd, have created a truly extraordinary feat of software engineering to make this show possible. Yes, the underlying deep learning algorithms are based on publicly accessible multinational projects, but boy must this thing have been a labour of love to get working. Again, I can’t even begin to imagine.
Quite aside from its obvious value as high quality comedy theatre, this is a piece of work that poses serious philosophical questions. How do we feel about AIs taking over our jobs? At what point do AIs become indistinguishable from humans, and how comfortable are we with that gap narrowing? To what extent do we wish the digital and live performance spheres crossing over? What is humour?
This is an incredibly exciting experiment that for me pushes hard enough at the outer limits of what we call live performance to warrant the high accolade of ‘groundbreaking’. As ever with improv, there will be some performances, and some games within a performance, that work better than others, but I think with this troupe the chances of a real off-day are pretty remote. But don’t just come for them. Come because this is momentous. I felt like I was witnessing the birth of something today – something that might well take over the world. And not only in a dystopian way.
* I checked with the company. A.L.Ex’s pronouns are officially it/its.