The following article was first published in the March 2019 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:
Imagine a future where relationship counselling is handled by a pair of lifelike robots. Rather than just talking, each becomes a substitute spouse to the human they’re helping. And although these ‘Partnerbots’ are capable of offering physical comfort, they also assess and role-play the problems they discover. Consequently, the human couple quickly gain a new insight into their incompatibility, at which point the robots are taken away to have their memories wiped clean.
Fortunately this isn’t a dystopian nightmare. It’s the premise of Loving Androids, a comedy drama crafted by Philip Ayckbourn. Not only is Philip the writer, he’s also directing the forthcoming production at Lewes Little Theatre, where his farce Timeshare was performed in 2017.
“I’ve always been interested in gadgets and people”, Philip tells me. Those interests coincided in Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld, which saw human-looking robots used as entertainment in an adventure park. “I was hugely influenced by that”, he explains. “I was very interested about their lives and how the humans treated them as playthings.”
“The Partnerbots are quite human-like, they’re not clunky, which also makes the margins a bit blurred. They’re not just a toy you can switch off; they have feelings because they’ve been programmed in a very advanced way.”
A robot counsellor is a fascinating proposition but it’s not a straightforward one for the actors to interpret. “It is a challenge – it’s a challenge for me, too”, Philip says. “It really comes from movement, from stillness, really. Starting from nothing and building up from the stillness. It gives them a great power and strength, which is lovely to watch. If they become too animated, too emotional, they become more human.”
Science fiction isn’t the only influence on Loving Androids. This play – and Timeshare, too – have a comedic style that owes a debt to Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Philip’s father. “The Ayckbourn DNA is there”, I suggest. “I’m very aware of that when I’m writing”, Philip replies. ”Obviously I’m steeped in his work. There’s no escaping that – which I think isn’t a bad thing; I feel very fortunate for that DNA. Something I really admire about him is the comedy; the ability to find the right word, the right line, to set something up and the payoff. And since principally I’m concerned with comedy, that’s very good DNA to be able to call on.”
“When you’re playing with slightly heightened or unreal situations – like Loving Androids – you need humour, I think, for people to go along with the believability of it.”
There’s a supernatural Ayckbourn double-bill planned for the 2019-2020 season at Lewes Little Theatre, featuring Haunting Julia by Sir Alan plus Psychic Connections by Philip. But, like android counsellors, that’s yet to come. Right now, Philip’s heading back to rehearsals… and teaching people how to be less human.
Loving Androids runs at Lewes Little Theatre from 16th to 23rd March 2019. lewestheatre.org