ALAN Ayckbourn wrote his first play for the SJT, under a pseudonym, in 1958, and writer and theatre have been pretty much constant companions for six decades.
Constant Companions is his 89th play and second premiere of the year after Welcome To The Family at the Old Laundry Theatre at Bowness-on-Windermere in May. That one travelled from the near future to the past; now he goes back to the future again, one just around the corner, “some time soon to come” where science fiction becomes science friction, but whether past or future, as ever Ayckbourn is above all else reflecting the present, our constant characteristics.
In Ayckbourn’s words, Constant Companions is “a look at a very possible future – in fact a very probable future of androids and artificial intelligence”, built around three parallel stories on Kevin Jenkins’ tripartite set design, each rooted in a relationship between human and robot. Who is in control? Who is malfunctioning more? Only time will tell.
In his bachelor pad, bored, lonely Don (Andy Cryer) is trying to assemble his new robo-sex toy, his Konstant Kompanion, designed to his desire for a big bust, who, once assembled, is never seen but heard from the bedroom inflicting disasters on his bathroom to pratfall comic effect.
Helping Don, on the phone but distractedly, is Leigh Symonds’ Winston, with plenty on his hands already re-tuning ED (Naomi Petersen), the attic-abiding, errant automaton maid of Andrea De Santo ((Tanya Loretta-Dee)
An engineer working on the hoof, by the manual but by trial and error too, he has the manner of a diffident, crushed soul, but goes from lost-love deflation to reinflation by ED’s seductive manner. There will be a sting in this tale, one of manipulation, but their central scene is beautifully written, confessional, gradually revealing, and slower paced than the comedy that fizzes around it.
In her sleek executive office, with all its hi-tech mod cons and a swishly dressed assistant (Georgia Burnell’s aspirational Sylvia), high-powered lawyer Lorraine (Alexandra Mathie) has red-carded her rotter husband in favour of JAN 60 (Richard Stacey), a smooth-operator robot janitor as calmly efficient and deadpan as a Wodehouse butler but with the humour button set to hyena-manic and an alarmingly agreeable, pre-programmed manner, right word, right place, right time.
Linking all three bereft human stories is a need for love and companionship, but what of the androids’ motives, their needs, their rights, where will all that artificial intelligence lead? A prescient darkness is at play in Ayckbourn’s mischief-making, a sense of inevitability too where the human failings, vulnerabilities and contrary own goals of today will have ultimate consequences in our imminent tomorrows.
You could call it gallows humour. The Ayckbourn truth is we shall never change, pre-programmed in our own way to fall in love, to fail, to self-destroy, to still crave affection, and we shall laugh at those failings in the company of this ever astute writer-director’s typically brilliant cast. The androids, however, will of course have the last laugh. The ultimate mod con at our expense.