Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Constant Companions

Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Constant Companions’ which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcasle-under-Lyme until Saturday 4th November.

My absolute favourite Ayckbourn plays are the ones in which he toys with time and introduces Androids to highlight human inadequacy. In ‘Constant Companions’ he does both. 

This very morning Rishi Sunak has been speaking about “the power of AI to make life better for all of us” whilst mentioning how it might also “bring new dangers and fears”. Writing this play a year ago, Mr. Ayckbourn was already exploring what the domestic dangers of Artificial Intelligence might amount to. His considerations are a source of great humour in the theatre, but if, as he hints, they should spread beyond the stage, we should be afraid. Very afraid.

Using his tried and tested theatrical technique, the stage is divided into three locations, all set ‘some time soon to come’. Into each scenario an android is introduced.

In his lonely bedroom, Don (played in a ‘Carry On’ manner by Andy Cryer) is trying to assemble his new sex robot. The blatantly labelled packaging alone earns a huge audience laugh. Don immediately has difficulties. He can’t understand the vast IKEA style instructions sheet and, having ordered a model with XXXL busty substances, he can’t get it through the bedroom door. In desperation he calls his pal Winston, who happens to an android maintenance man. Winston should know. He had one of his own once, though the sex did tend to drain its batteries.

Now Winston’s having new difficulties on a call out to reprogramme an ‘Eco Domestic’ robot called E.D. (Eadie) who’s emotional override is on the blink. She works for the wealthy DeSantos family and has decided she is in love with their 17-year-old son.

Across town in the high-rise office of their solicitor, 60-year-old Lorraine (a feisty Alexandra Mathie) has a marriage that is falling apart and takes comfort in the robotic arms of the company janitor, ‘JAN 60’.

All three scenarios are destined to end in tears; hysterically funny tears … but tears non-the-less.

We only ever see the head component of Don’s dream doll (a very clever piece of props department animatronics) but the way it talks – like an in-store supermarket promotional video – suggests she is never going to be the girl for him.

E.D. (exquisitely and calculatingly played by Naomi Peterson) is a hugely more interesting proposition. As Winston works on her circuitry, she confesses she has learnt the human art of ‘pretending’ … and from then on, the audience doesn’t know whether to believe anything she says. Unfortunately, Leigh Symonds’ ‘Winston’ does believe her and, attracted by her advances, uses her as a confessional. Never tell a robot your secrets, especially a scheming one.

This sequence is the most cleverly written and beautifully performed part of the play, its emotional core. Winston’s personal story is one that anyone who has ever been a lovelorn adolescent will know all too well and Symonds unveils it with aching emotion, underpinned by bravely weighted timing. Peterson’s empathetic attention only adds to the pathos. She appears completely trustworthy. Or has she also learned the human art of self-interest? Nevertheless, he rather embarrassingly falls for her. She caresses his cheek, and he can feel her breath … even though he knows it’s only her ventilation system kicking in.

In the Solicitor’s office, JAN 60, is more innocent. Richard Stacey gives a most precisely controlled robotic performance, employing minimal bodily movement and tiny flexes of stiff fingers with complete conviction. His hopelessly mechanical laugh has the audience hooting. Following modification, JAN 60 is able to express “harmless falsehoods” in order to keep his lover happy. He concedes in every argument and, as long as he’s fully charged, he’s terrific in bed.

And here Ayckbourn breaks another convention. For whilst the other two scenarios stay firmly in the near future, this scene romps away 25 years into the future when Androids have acquired equal rights. The humans with whom they formed an attachment are, of course, dying. If a robot malfunctioned in this way the owners surely would sue the manufacturers. So, what next?

And ‘what next’ is Ayckbourn’s point. Where will all this lead? As Mr Sunak mentioned this morning, “humanity could lose control of AI completely” unless world-wide controls are put in place. But how do you legislate emotions? Artificial or Real.

The question of eventual Human extinction is raised towards the end of the play. It has always been the perceived wisdom that the insects will inherit the earth. Ayckbourn’s Androids have other ideas.