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Anthropology at Hampstead Theatre | Review

Hot on the heels of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s wonderful new play (his 89th!) Constant Companions about our future relationship to/with ‘Artificial Intelligence’, now showing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, comes the premiere of this 75-minute-long play looking at the same subject from a different perspective, as you might expect, by San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson.

Abigail Thaw in Anthropology. Credit The Other Richard.
Abigail Thaw in Anthropology. Credit The Other Richard.

Who doesn’t love a thriller?” asks the author in a programme note. “That genre has a built-in, truth-seeking macro question to it: What does it all mean? What’s going on here? Which feels like a core question at the heart of human’s relationship to technology.”

This opening production of Hampstead Theatre’s Autumn Season has certainly been given every chance of success. As well as the four actors, well over twenty people are listed in the ‘creative team’. These include Georgia Lowe, who has designed hugely impressive grey and black sets, imaginatively lit by James Whiteside with impressive video designs by Daniel Denton. Max Pappenheim has composed some superbly atmospheric music and other ‘sounds’, greatly aiding the impact the play makes.

Merril, energetically played by Myanna Buring, is almost suicidal since her sister disappeared a year ago, so in the end, being a software engineer, enlists the aid of AI to try to discover what has happened to her, the police having given up long ago. One has to admire the way she uses her various monologues at the start of the play. Merril builds a digital simulation of her sister, Angie, believably portrayed on screen by Dakota Blue Richards, who soon becomes all too real! Richards is able to find some light and shade in her dialogue and moves the play along, which must be difficult as all we see is a video of her head! We also meet Merril’s lesbian partner Raquel, subtly acted by Yolanda Kettle and Merril and Angie’s ‘druggie’ mother Brin, just out of another ‘rehab’ session. Abigail Thaw is very successful in making this role have some depth, even though the writing is often predictable.

Director Anna Ledwich has attempted to give this rather static play momentum and pace, the final scene being the most successful, but has been hampered by the stereotyped characters the playwright uses. She almost succeeds in convincing us that the repetitive monologues and duologues are interesting, There is gross overuse in Gunderson’s writing of F***K and S***T: used in moderation and to shock these words can be very useful to a playwright but used about four times a minute, as they often seem to be, is just dull!

Overall, Anthropology has been given every chance to shine in this production: the actors make as much as they can from what they are given, the direction is imaginative and the various design elements certainly aid the finished product, giving much food for thought about our future relationship to AI. As for it being a “thriller” as the playwright says, I am not sure! The best thing is to go and see for yourself! It certainly makes for a very different evening in the theatre.

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

Merril is one of Silicon Valley’s leading software engineers, but her life disintegrates when her younger sister Angie vanishes on her way home from college. A year later, when the police have long abandoned their search, Merril assembles all the digital material Angie has left behind and sets about building herself a digital simulation of her sister. The resultant ‘virtual Angie’ offers her some solace – until, that is, it starts to reveal new details about the real Angie’s disappearance…

CAST
MERRIL – MYANNA BURING
RAQUEL – YOLANDA KETTLE
ANGIE – DAKOTA BLUE RICHARDS
BRIN – ABIGAIL THAW

ARTISTIC TEAM
WRITER – LAUREN GUNDERSON
DIRECTOR – ANNA LEDWICH
DESIGNER – GEORGIA LOWE
LIGHTING DESIGNER – JAMES WHITESIDE
COMPOSER AND SOUND DESIGNER – MAX PAPPENHEIM
VIDEO DESIGNER – DANIEL DENTON
MOVEMENT AND INTIMACY DIRECTOR – SARA GREEN
CASTING DIRECTOR – GABRIELLE DAWES
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR – MARLIE HACO
COMPANY STAGE MANAGER – BENJAMIN SMITH
DEPUTY STAGE MANAGER – JULIA CRAMMER
ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER – ROMA RADFORD

A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE WORLD PREMIERE
ANTHROPOLOGY
BY LAUREN GUNDERSON
DIRECTED BY ANNA LEDWICH
7 SEP – 14 OCT 2023
Hampstead Theatre

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