In Thomas Eccleshare’s Royal Court debut, Hari (Mark Bonnar) and Max (Jane Horrocks) have ordered a robot son online. Jån is the ultimate in instant gratification; Quickly functional and easily programmable, he is a receptacle ready to be filled with the values of his parents and exists as a form of reliable, actualised wish fulfilment. Like a human twitter feed, with the press of a button he’ll tell you what you want to hear, whether it’s the right opinion on immigration, or that he’s chosen to study a useful subject at uni. It’s all effect and no cause, all reward and no work, but these parents, who take pride in a son whose successes are owed more to careful coding than a strong upbringing, are easy to relate to when you yourself have spent hours experiencing similar vicarious pleasure from playing The Sims.
Instructions For Correct Assembly is the theatrical equivalent of watching an episode of Black Mirror. Since it began in 2011, Black Mirror has gone on to monopolise the cultural conversation when it comes to this particular genre of speculative science fiction. 'Black Mirror-esque' stories usually take this form:
1) An unspecified near-future
2) with an everyman character
3) who interacts with a piece of plausible science fiction technology.
4) This interaction is followed to a logical conclusion
5) which, thanks to the same faults of human nature we observe in our own society, is usually tragic, prescient or tragically prescient.
So, when I say that Instructions For Correct Assembly is the theatrical equivalent of watching an episode of Black Mirror, this is what you can expect. The formula works, and the script delivers an absorbing and darkly humorous exploration of the middle-class quest for perfection. Michele Austin and Jason Barnett are brilliantly grating as Laurie and Paul, whose boasts of familial achievements become a magnifying glass for Hari and Max’s shame and perceived failure. Before Jån, the couple had another son, a biological son: Nick, as humanly fallible as Jån is mechanically perfect. Both sons are eerily played by Brian Vermel, resulting in, as the playtext describes, ‘a tension, even confusion about who we are watching.’ This is the tension of stasis, an uneasy equilibrium between past and future; Hari and Max are unable to assuage their guilt for Nick’s death, instead using Jån to tinker at a moment in their lives which, due to the limitations of technology and the immutability of history, will never be quite right.
The play’s really funny too. Jån glitches spectacularly in a spot-on realisation of that fantasy we’ve all had: answering small-talk questions like ‘how are you?’ and ‘what have you been up to?’ with the uncensored, impolite truth. The set, which smartly contrasts a clean, Ikea-catalogue home with the unruly inevitability of nature, uses a conveyor belt to smoothly transport the set and the actors between scenes in a neat visual metaphor for the commodification of human life. A misstep for the production though, are the moments of movement which occasionally punctuate scenes. The actors vibrating like mannequins on an assembly line feels a little half-hearted and the movement sequences seem like fairly didactic interpretations of the play’s theme. The rest of director Hamish Pririe’s work is good, however, as he achieves the balance between sci-fi surrealism and well-observed takes on the two big As of familial communication: affection and awkwardness.
Written by @HGlead