Review: Constant Companions, Stephen Joseph Theatre

Published in The Stage on September 18, 2023

A confession: the thought of an 84-year-old writing a play about sex robots did not necessarily fill me with optimism. But in his 89th play, Alan Ayckbourn proves you don’t need to be a digital native to write about AI.

This is a smart, funny, speculative sci-fi comedy from a relentlessly curious theatrical imagination. It’s a shame, perhaps, that he directed too – another pair of critical eyes could have ironed out the kinks that mar the pleasures the piece has to offer.

Playing out across three narrative strands, it’s set in a deftly evoked future where androids work as a servant underclass – as staff in lawyer Lorraine’s office; domestic maids for posh mum Andrea; and as a self-assembly “companion” for bachelor Don. But some bug in the robot’s empathy settings is leading them to catch human feelings: security android Jan starts seducing Lorraine with birthday presents, while Andrea’s maid Edie has won her teenage son’s heart and is soon working out how to manipulate the emotions of Winston, a technician sent to fix her.

Ayckbourn delivers laugh-out-loud lines in the miscommunications between the hyper-literal, brutally honest androids and their messy, contradictory humans. But as the robots attempt to understand love, desire, pain and yearning, the play affectingly reminds the audience what it means to be a vulnerable meat sack full of emotions. There are some achingly tender moments, especially when Edie persuades Winston to tell her about his missed chance at love.

Yet for a playwright so associated with writing clockwork theatrical forms, the play is oddly lopsided. The second half shoots Lorraine and Jan’s narrative into the future, questioning what marriage between obedient, obliging AI and a fallible, ageing human might be like; eventually, the Edie plot intersects, and there are satisfying twists in both storylines.

Don and his malfunctioning sex-bot, however, remain stuck – neither character nor situation develops, so that the strand feels superfluous, merely an over-extended cheap joke about men never reading instructions properly. And while there are fascinating, if light-touch, nods to the ethical questions a robot underclass might raise, Don never has a moment’s doubt about using a sentient sex toy – it’s all gags about extra-large breasts or the battery running down.

That’s not the only dated aspect, either. Kevin Jenkins’ design looks like a camp 1970s sci-fi – glossy white furniture; slinky metallic costumes – and some lines feel anachronistically old-fashioned already (why would anyone be paying by cheque?). Some performances are rather high – although Richard Stacey and Naomi Petersen make uncannily convincing androids, marrying glassy smoothness with occasional jerkiness and an affectless, often hilariously deadpan delivery – while Leigh Symonds is heart-breaking as Winston.

As long as people write this movingly about AI – and about being human – we should be safe from ChatGPT replacing playwrights any time soon.

Where next?