Constant Companions, a provocative production at Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic theatre, explores the intricacies of human emotion, the evolving dynamics between humans and robots, and the potential manipulation of feelings in a society increasingly intertwined with artificial intelligence.
In this thought-provoking play, Alan Ayckbourn weaves together three parallel storylines, each offering a unique perspective on human-robot relationships and the multifaceted implications of AI companions. This not-so-distant future world raises essential questions about control, malfunction, and genuine emotional connections. The overarching theme revolves around the human quest for love and companionship, while subtly hinting at the motives and rights of artificial intelligences in this brave new world.
The standout performances of the cast enrich the narrative with depth and nuance. Andy Cryer, who opens the play with the character Don, embodies the persona of a bored and lonely individual attempting to assemble his ‘Konstant Kompanion.’ Wilson’s character, portrayed by Cryer, exhibits remarkable growth and transformation throughout the play, providing a poignant and insightful lens into the complexities of human-robot relationships. Richard Stacey’s portrayal of Jan 60 stands out for its impeccable AI acting and skilful infusion of humour, elevating the character to a standout role within the play.
Kevin Jenkins’ set design effectively delineates the three distinct playing areas. Don’s bedroom and the attic are presented as timeless locations that effectively draw the audience into the characters’ worlds. However, the lawyer’s office, though artistically designed, presents a minor challenge due to its assumed consistency across different time periods portrayed, when the characters radically change. Jenkins’ costumes strike an admirable balance, conveying futuristic playfulness while maintaining an air of sophistication.
The play’s success in its utilisation of lighting, sound, and other creative elements lies in how they collectively shape the atmosphere, mood, and understanding of the audience. This is especially impressive in the ‘in-the-round’ setting of the theatre.
The play incorporates elements of humour and comedy, which, while resonating well with some, may not necessarily be suitable for a younger audience. The humorous moments are hit and miss, but they do succeed in eliciting genuine laughter from the audience. These moments provide levity within a thought-provoking narrative. I do wonder whether my younger take on the play has tainted by view of the humour – there were many moments of audience laughter which just didn’t seem funny. Perhaps we can chart this up to generational differences.
One notable challenge lies in the narrative’s structure, particularly with the time inconsistencies. While some storylines span several decades, others unfold over a comparatively shorter period. These discrepancies may present a sense of mismatch that affects the overall cohesion of the play. It is worth mentioning that the play’s duration could also be considered lengthy, which, in tandem with the time inconsistencies, may have impacted the audience’s engagement.
Constant Companions successfully triggers introspection on the future of companionship in a world where humans and artificial intelligences coexist. It thoughtfully prompts the audience to contemplate the evolving nature of human connections and the profound impact of technology on our relationships.
Alan Ayckbourn’s dual role as the playwright and director is evident in the production’s execution. His direction ensures that each storyline maintains its own distinct pacing while seamlessly transitioning between them, ultimately keeping the audience engaged and invested in the characters’ journeys.
Perhaps one of the biggest issue with this show is the content when examined; the entire show feels laden with sexism. The play has a real issue with women’s roles and how this is presented in the play. If Ayckbourn had intended to create a piece which really makes his audience think about gender, then I believe this would have been a really invaluable addition to the play, but I fear this was not its intention.
The show has 4 female characters and each have questionable presentation. Both Lorraine and ED are subjects of male gaze and there seems little to no discussion or dialogue whereby they discuss anything other than men. Lorraine, who takes part in an affair, seemingly gives up her career soon after meeting her AI companion. ED is shown to be a manipulative antagonist who uses her emotions as a weapon. Sylvia is a subservient assistant to Lorraine and then another (male) boss before finally reaching her career aspirations at the end of her career. Andrea is limited to 2 short scenes where she is an intensely unlikeable, cold, snooty mother (some excellent acting in such a small role from Tanya Loretta-Dee). Elsewhere, female AI companions are discussed as sex toys and domestic servants.
The play, which is set in the future, feels like a massive step back for women. The play repeatedly relies on lewd sexual remarks and jokes which are usually at the expense of women. Further jokes are made about stereotypes of men and women. This play could have been the perfect opportunity to really examine gender difference here – instead, it makes cheap jokes about it. I fear there is a generational issue here. Many members of the audience lapped these jokes up, but I sat there feeling really uncomfortable at what I was watching and hearing.
In conclusion, Constant Companions at the New Vic theatre is an intricate and thought-provoking exploration of human-robot relationships. It raises crucial questions about the role of artificial intelligence in our lives and the ever-evolving nature of human connections. While structural concerns, a concerning presentation of women and varying degrees of humour exist, this production undoubtedly serves as a compelling conversation starter, urging audiences to deeply consider the future of companionship in a world increasingly defined by technology.
Constant Companions is playing at the New Vic until 4th November.