A show set at some point in the relatively near future involving artificial intelligence (AI) seemed topical just a couple of days after an ‘Amazon Go’ store opened in Seattle, which uses cameras, electronic sensors and other technological wizardry to identify customers and track the items they want, without the need for checkouts, self-service or otherwise. In Artificial, the scenarios are more personal than this new-fangled method of supermarket shopping (which, notably, unless one is being identity checked for buying alcohol, has no requirement for human interaction whatsoever).
Dom (Edward Baxter) has the sort of job that, on one level, is quite reassuring, particularly for those who are concerned that the continuous advances in technology would put a large number of people out of work. In the world of Artificial, some people may have been displaced from whatever they did for a living, but the overall unemployment rate is more or less the same – people are simply doing different jobs than the ones a generation before.
On another level, the alternative jobs in the new era, where Alexa can do a whole lot more than the Alexa devices of 2018. Alexa doesn’t even have to be called Alexa: Dom’s own robot goes by Kurtus (Matt Barker). The new robot for Eva (Alex Parry), to be installed by Dom, goes by Clive (Alexi Smith). There’s also Adams (Ellie Cooper), a friend of Dom’s for many years, and Dennis (Luke Culloty), another one of Dom’s clients. If I recall correctly, Dom is a ‘robotic therapist’, which seems to involve matching the ‘right’ sort of robot to each customer (or client). What these robots can or can’t do ends up being secondary to a surprisingly timeless plotline addressing the human need for love and companionship.
I had some questions about the life cycles of these robots – Kub is replaced by Clive, the former to be reset to default factory settings before being redeployed at some future point. But would there not be newer and better models of robot every so often, effectively forcing the older ones into retirement? Perhaps I am being too over-analytical. There’s humour to be found in, for example, the likes of Kurtus being programmed to have human attributes, resulting in differences of opinion with Dom – the robot, as it turns out, can be rather persuasive, and even proves instrumental in assisting Dom with moving onwards and upwards with his life. The show doesn’t, refreshingly, have a tidy ending. It’s left so open-ended that there’s enough scope for an entire sequel.
I wondered if things were about to get dark and sinister, as the narrative proceeded with civility – surely at some point, someone’s going to fly off the handle, and do something ridiculous, outlandish or just plain weird. In the end, I was waiting for a critical incident that never came, and the play treats Eva and Adams very much as Dom’s equals to the end of the story, a departure from the still prevalent custom in theatre to treat women characters as prizes to be awarded to the titular male lead. I noted with interest that Dom described his line of work as “emotionally exhausting”. The same could almost be said of Artificial, exploring what it means to thrive as a human being in a digital world.
Artificial isn’t artificial, but rather a thoughtful and down to earth production, wonderfully unconventional.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Artificial (Drama and Comedy)
With an A.I in every home, people have become increasingly insular, depending on and trusting their obliging personal robots as much as any person. Dom knows this as well as anyone. By day he sits alone in peoples homes prescribing the correct unit for each family. By night he sits alone in the solitary company of his own model. However when Dom is given a chance to break the cycle of his loneliness and regret when meets someone who invigorates the monotonous routine of his existence.
Hen & Chickens Theatre
109 St Paul’s Road
London N1 2NA
Booking to 27th January 2018