The Uncanny Valley

Tue 6th – Sat 24th August 2013

reviews

Helena Blackstone

at 10:11 on 10th Aug 2013

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I am ushered to my seat by two terrifyingly wide-eyed men with shaved heads and blinding smiles. Once I have assured one of these sim-like people that I am sitting comfortably, the show is allowed to begin. What comes next is a whirlwind tour of main character Wilson’s life up till now – that is, some way off in the distant future – through birth, orphanhood and geekdom, as enacted by brightly coloured sock puppets through synchronised dance. When we finally meet adult Wilson, that is the one played by a human actor (Frode Gerlow) rather than a grey sock, he is a delightfully naïve, blinking moron, who will entertain and enchant us throughout the production as he progresses into a man who is, in his robot girlfriend Phoebe’s words “fully operational”. This is a tale of the first love between man and robot, as related to us by their “digital descendants” way off in the future.

Simon Maeder is delightfully irritating as a goofy rapping weatherman, but his real strength lies in the many parts he plays in between his character Chris Diamond’s scenes – from a whole museum’s worth of humanoid robots dating from 2018, to the seriously impressive sound effects he produces through a megaphone. When Phoebe first awakes he brings her to life with sounds that are in sync with Phoebe’s every robotic swivel, from her eyeballs to her fingertips. His most impressive feat is when he evokes a whole scene in which Phoebe is channel-flipping on an unseen TV set, by cycling through a series of clearly distinguished genres using only barely audible mumbling and a few meaningless phrases.

Maria Askew does not speak much in her role as Phoebe the robo-girlfriend, but her offstage voices are intelligently humorous, as was her physical performance. She discovers the human pleasure in dancing at one point, and as she does so she draws Wilson into copying her every movement, until he suddenly finds that they are creating a replication of Pong – that retro tennis game – in the air, out of their groovy dance moves.

This is a smart production, which manages to be goofy and slick at the same time. The devised script is sharp and funny, with much humour made out of Wilson and Phoebe’s inter-species love, (with lines from Phoebe such as “When you leave, parts of my system shut down. In need of repair”, to which he responds simply “I miss you too Phoebe”). A seamless show; I had a great time.

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Alex Wilson

at 09:31 on 11th Aug 2013

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I have to say ‘uncanny’ was a word quite apt for the kind of futuristic sci-fi comedy that Superbolt Theatre serves up here. It is fun and cheery certainly in terms of its abundant repartee and slapstick, though I think it’s fair to say that in terms of character depth and plot it is disappointingly thin on the ground.

Interplay between the gauche but endearing Wilson and his charismatic but arrogant fellow meteorologist Chris was clear-cut but soon felt wearing, while the first inter-human-robot romance between Wilson and android Phoebe was amusing but ultimately underdeveloped – not to speak of the problematic gender politics evident here, especially in the largely voiceless nature of Phoebe.

Nevertheless, the cast were particularly adept at animating their faces, the exaggerated expressiveness not out of place in a silent movie, and this skill was exploited in the emotional awakening of the android, which was a surprisingly affecting moment. The overall theme of the play with this emphasis on the feeling robot was the significance of the living human bond – there was lots of fluent talk of connectiveness, though perhaps not of a terribly original nature.

Let’s return to the ‘uncanny’ as a tribute to the play’s title. For one thing, following the interactive welcoming of the audience by the three cast members, all assuming the personae of excessively polite aliens, to explain the story using human terms and resources, we have a most bizarre puppet theatre of multi-coloured socks that narrate Wilson’s early biography. Similarly, we have one of our metereologists (before you ask, I still don’t know quite what the stress on meterology lended this play, but let’s run with it….) perform a weather rap in an Australian accent, while the other makes a vocal transformation to sing an operatic number. A Pavarotti seems to emerge from Wilson, more or less our in-house Mr Bean.

If you enjoy Mr Bean-inspired farce, you will enjoy the comedy in this play. For instance, during a routine as one character flicked through TV channels another rapidly rattled off racing commentary, an insipid romantic film, etc through a megaphone, to great reception from much of the audience. However, I was rather underwhelmed by the humour.

The use of the megaphone for generating a melange of futuristic, electronic and technological sounds was effective in creating the ambience and a good unifying feature. This was complemented by the surreal robotic movement of the actors, while their deep mechanical bowing accompanied by sharp intakes of breath marked the quick and constant transition of scenes. I enjoyed the warm interaction with the audience of the actors (more would have been welcome), and I felt their energy was buoyant, as they played off each other well. There was also some quite interesting use of the audience as a TV audience, which provided a nice contrast with the maintenance of fourth wall during the romantic scenes.

On the whole, I would say this was a slick and entertaining piece of theatre, but rather lacking in any profoundness or emotional intricacy, of which I would beggar the actors are capable, even if the script at present is not.

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