Room Service (Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham, until September 7th)
Artificial intelligence has been creeping us out since the shipboard computer HAL 9000 threateningly announced in a freaky monotone, “I am afraid I can’t do that, Dave” in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So anyone who continues to be spooked by Siri or Alexa telling you your toast is ready or that you’re due at the doctor’s in 10 minutes would be best to avoid Room Service, an intelligent and amusing new play about AI at the Bread and Roses Theatre.
The play explores the “day after tomorrow” sci-fi idea of a man arriving at a hotel and finding virtual room service in the shape of an advanced robot called Zahra. But this artificial intelligence isn’t the sort who’ll prevent you going outside to repair your spaceship, as in Kubrick’s epic: she is far more likely to order food and drink, give simple practical advice and check your faeces to ensure you haven’t got colon cancer.
Designed “to enhance the stay of guests” Zahra knows all there is to know about people once they’ve booked in and placed themselves on her digital radar. She cheerfully takes phone calls, lists misdemeanours captured on CCTV, checks appointments and can even helpfully mimic your voice to avert the possibility of a marriage breakdown.
There’s a pleasing Black Mirror vibe to Richard Fitchett’s sharply written and astutely observed piece, which first saw the light of day when an excerpt was performed at the theatre last year and which was also chosen to help launch its second venue near Kings Cross. Now developed into a complete work it’s a clever study of humanity’s relationship with technology – in this case a virtual helper who anticipates what you want before you know it yourself.
Andrew Mullan plays Max, the unsuspecting businessman who leaves his wife and young son at home, checks into a hotel room for work purposes and checks out an attractive colleague, leading to a one-night stand. He doesn’t reckon on the reaction of Zahra, who matter of factly leads him on a guilt trip.
Mullan is every inch the caring husband and father who sees nothing wrong in having a quick fling. He skilfully tunes in to our slight phobia of all-knowing, all-seeing new technology yet allows us to see the man and machine interconnection as he begins to anthropomorphise the hardware/software package with whom he shares the room, a simple set containing bed, table and chairs yet strongly resembling just about every hotel room businessfolk are likely to inhabit.
It’s a strong performance that curbs what could all too easily be manic, instead bringing out a genuine fascination of what makes free will and what counts as pre-determination. His view is that humans are naturally the superior beings, able to have feelings and express emotions in a way mere machines cannot – yet how much is his mind changed by an artifical intelligence that can so quickly pick up (and deliver) sarcasm and adapt words and actions to changing situations?
Emma Stannard is extraordinary as Zahra, in a pitch perfect and occasionally unnerving portrayal of the carefully programmed machine, unconcerned about tracking individuals through any legally accessible data yet self aware enough to wonder if her actions are a result of random algorithms coming together or a burgeoning sense of empathy.
It’s an enthralling performance, every bit as believable and appealing as, for example, Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, of whom Zahra must surely be a forebear. Stannard (who also co-produces the play with Fitchett) always convinces with a clipped vocal style and expressionless face, never cracking once as she comes to the realisation that she may be more than just wires and electronic pulses.
Micha Mirto directs with a sense of urgency: not a second is wasted in determining the characters (even those only referred to who we do not meet) and the obvious sci-fi angles are pulled back to give something more contemporary, personable and debatable.
The play certainly deserves to be a conversation starter: how comfortable should we feel in our modern world that any intelligence other than our own can so easily discover all our information and secrets? And how might the most impersonal collectors use and store our personal data?
Praise must go to the Bread and Roses Theatre for having such confidence in this stimulating and weighty drama which the writer has been able to develop into something full-bodied and robust, and which digs deep into the ideas and characters to give an intriguing issue fresh perspective.
This crisp new work about AI is definitely A1.
A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls http://www.thespyinthestalls.com/