FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by the dramatist Philip Ayckbourn who also directed the design team with Paul Carpenter, including David Rankin Keith Gilbert and the Working Party. Paul Carpenter also operates light and sound.
It’s a match. Since Philip Ayckbourn’s Timeshare enjoyed a run at Lewes Little in October 2017 his next play, a world premiere here, has been eagerly anticipated and the dramatist certainly looks forward to working with LLT in the future.
If Timeshare inevitably made one look for parallels in Alan Ayckbourn’s work – plays like Communicating Doors – Loving Androids confirms Philip’s now carved out a distinctive genre that’s unlike anyone else’s. Comedies on future living are heavily outweighed by dystopias. But this Ayckbourn is both gentle and possessed of a dark, plangent imagination under the inventive brio.
Timeshare dazzled. Loving Androids dazzles in depth. For one thing, it asks what it is to be human, and in this case, can those designated non-human turn out to be more human than their makers? It’s a play threatening to break your heart.
Directed by Ayckbourn himself who also directs the design team, it’s the kind of professional production that LLT’s resources can so consummately support. Ayckbourn disarmingly prefaces the programme with an account of how he proposed several ingenious sets, only to be nudged towards practical simplicity by Paul Carpenter who also operates light and sound – some ingenious musical choices too.
What we’re literally faced with is minimally classic. Classic because it’s two sofas, really chaise-longs out of Marivaux or Sheridan, minimal props (mainly alcohol, a key driver) and a back-projection that shifts. Occasionally a white door’s placed centre-stage to suggest separate rooms. More often, as the projections shows, we’re in either adjoining or the same room, with bright windows or doors, again unfussy and un-distracting. David Rankin Keith Gilbert and the Working Party know with Carpenter, what to leave out. It concentrates the whole.
There’s a recorded announcement. We discover it’s enhanced marriage guidance: because Julia and Gavin Nicholson’s marriage has hit the buffers. To buff it up Julia’s rich parents have paid for a couple of androids to give the couple a marriage workout – this is the company spiel. And the good news is that it’s a sex workout for the first half after induction. Nevertheless Gavin’s never wanted it.
Then the agent arrives. These droids are ultra-realistic too, can feel pleasure and pain, confirms the wonderfully odious Derrick Payne (geddit?) played with insouciant sleaze by John Hartnett.
Accompanied by his own old-model 2000 android Lola (Kristina Anne Howell) on whom he’s inflicted a variety of s/m tortures, Derrick introduces the new 3000 robots which he invites the couple to name. So Max M 3000 (Dan Marot) and F Frankie F3000 after some floundering (India Whitehouse) are activated. Stage 1.
Their mission is simple and complex. Provide uncritical affection support and much sex in the halcyon Stage 2, absorb the couple’s qualities over this honeymoon period. Then in Stage 3, use this as critical feedback time. That’s when the couple learn about themselves.
Derrick assures the couple that Lola’s jerky malfunctionings are due to her being worn out and needing a total strip-down, clean and wipe. His language is derogatory and misogynist: the dramatic lesson isn’t lost on anyone remotely acquainted with feminism. Lola herself remains inscrutable; almost. But why has she tried ramming the car or put bleach in his tea?
Whitehouse and Marot are outstandingly good in their mix of human-droid-human movements, like something out of Alexander technique or a kind of ballet méchanique, very slightly rigid with some surprisingly human twists; but each movement articulated along a particular balletic arc. Their voices too emanate from a calm even timbre. For the moment. Ayckbourn wanted stillness. He must be delighted with what these two – and Howell – achieve, especially when alone.
Howell – who works and acts with Ayckbourn – is consummate in her mix of droid and droid-shorting, where several mechanical failures – due to abuse, we’re sure – produce twitches and sudden verbal shortings. at the climax of the first act Howell enacts a stunningly kooky set of movement holding both the other droids. There’s a reason.
Oh and Derrick says never let the androids alone together, or they’ll contaminate each other, and the pure (programmed and subsequent) memories of always loving their owners, might be compromised by another set of programmed/other memories.
Laura Fosner’s Julia quickly takes to Max, triumphantly leading him upstairs for endless pleasure. Simon Hellyer’s Gavin is both more truculent and wary. Close questions about Frankie’s physical functions come with sexual assumptions: how real is she?
Ayckbourn’s exquisitely good at skewering male sexuality by exposing it to what might be regarded as not-quite-human sexual objects. But Frankie can say no. ‘Time for that later.’ Just as Max has. Gavin though proves more difficult.
Hellyer here provides a fine contained reading of Gavin’s somewhat unreconstructed resentment, all in a towering frae that here responds to the stillness elsewhere. He’s no Derrick, but his slightly machismo assumptions are heightened by his very disempowerment. Julia’s parents have imposed an admittedly fetching droid on him. Hellyer’s good at thawing Gavin’s responses, raw as they are. He’s even finer in the second half where his self-realisation comes into its own.
Fausner’s particularly good at this stage flipping out in languorous command of Marot’s Max and on the phone where she feels she an be more human. It’s nonchalant entitlement and Fausner exudes it.
With passing days – flitted through in rapid dumb-show – the droids return in Roman slave and BDSM black leather, as they’re increasingly used as sexual sand menial slaves. Frankie ad Max accidentally meet though when Gavin locks himself out. They touch, palm up (‘and palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss’ a Shakespeare director whispered to me). Derrick, checking, notes this as a mere blip. Then somehow they meet Lola, who’s in clear physical pain in a nurse’s suit. She transmits this in a virtuoso display of jerk and shudder.
The second act opens with apparently all restored. But there’s spasms in our two droids we’ve not seen before. Then comes the reckoning – feedback time. And things get far more than just fed back. The two humans are exposed to their shortcomings. The now vulnerable Gavin and Julia in Hellyer’s and Fausner’s performances are further raised in this.
Equally Whitehouse and Marot later their new selves – the Lola memories coupled with their own – and realize the real from the programmed. The human are terrified. Derrick is due shortly. And the Lola he thinks he has with him no longer cherry-wigged but as he thinks cleaned out, is on a mission.
The marvellously poignant, almost unbearable part of this play is when the droids – now loving each other – decide to snatch memories of their own, or dream them up electrically. They see oblivion’s inevitable. They’ll be wiped, rich as they are with three people’s memories and those of two humans. But what human feelings have been woken in Julia in particular, Gavin and indeed Lola?
This is a beautifully-constructed play, small in compass, big in scope and deft at managing the transitions. If LLT can nurture another Ayckbourn to produce some more full-length comedies of such heart and penetration, it’ll have achieved a special niche even in its own history.