Monday, 16 April 2018

Theatre review: Instructions for Correct Assembly

Thomas Eccleshare isn’t a playwright afraid of a high concept, or of asking his creatives for the impossible, whether it’s nature fighting back against urbanisation in a very literal way, or a Mediaeval poem turned into a live comic book. Instructions for Correct Assembly, his first play for the Royal Court’s main stage, is no different, taking the idea of the IKEA flat-pack and wondering what we could be building out of it next. Harry (Mark Bonnar) and Max’s (Jane Horrocks) son Nick (Brian Vernel) died some months ago after years of drug addiction. But the couple have found a project to help them move on with their lives, and are excited to assemble their new son Jån (also Vernel,) who’s been ordered from a generic model (“white and polite”) but can be programmed to suit their own specifications. Through a series of comic scenes they iron out the imperfections, but as time goes on they feel the need to programme some grey areas back in.

Hamish Pirie’s production has strong visuals, starting with Cai Dyfan’s set which centres on a pair of conveyor belts, and begins in a narrow window that brings back flashbacks of The Generation Game. As the possibilities Jån brings into Max and Harry’s lives seem to expand, so the set opens up.

Also crucial to telling the story are Paul Kieve’s illusions; most notably in a scene where Vernel’s disembodied head sits on a tabletop chatting to his “parents” as they make adjustments, but I suspect a certain amount of stage magic has also been used to help some of his incredibly quick moves from one part of the stage to another, as he goes from Jån in the story’s present to Nick in flashback. The biggest audience gasp came from the simplest effect though, probably as it comes so early in the story, as Harry flips the back of Jån’s hair up to tinker with his microchip.

It’s a light-hearted approach to sci-fi that fits in with the humour that’s always present in the script. Much of this comes from the attempts to make Jån into the perfect son the couple want, and the mishaps along the way as they adjust his programming (my favourite line being when Jån is sweetly listing everything he did that day, culminating in “…and then I had a lovely wank.”) There’s also strong comic moments from Michele Austin and Jason Barnett as the couple’s friends Laurie and Paul, whose own kids overachieve to the point of showing up Max and Harry’s disappointment even more, and whose reactions to a dinner party intended to show off the new android son make it a strong comic setpiece even as the story around it is disintegrating.

Vernel adds to a recent string of memorable performances both with the comic jumping between different versions of Jån, and with the more tragic portrayal of Nick in flashback. The distinctions between the two start to blur as Harry and Max more overtly programme the android to match their son – no longer aiming for perfection, but for a version of Nick who made the same mistakes but came out of them in the end instead of being consumed by them. Horrocks and Bonnar also give moving performances, very funny in their bright, slightly unhinged enthusiasm for their new son, with an undercurrent of the profound grief that’s led them to this extreme. The cast is rounded out by Shaniqua Okwok as Laurie and Paul’s daughter Amy, possibly the only person to still hold a realistic view of Nick after his death.

I could definitely have done without the jerky, robotic dances from the cast during scene changes, a nod to the kind of 1960s sci-fi the story has a hint of, but which comes across genuinely naff rather than ironically kitsch. But there’s not much else to criticise in Pirie’s production, which gently suggests not only the core of heartbreak in Eccleshare’s story but also its point about impossible expectations and competitive parents, all while maintaining its light and entertaining tone.

Instructions for Correct Assembly by Thomas Eccleshare is booking until the 19th of May at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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