Are we entering an era when the concept of “designer babies” has been taken a step further with the prospect that, by means of artificial intelligence, we can order and build from scratch a fully functioning model child as if we have bought and assembled some flat-pack furniture?
This is the essential idea behind Thomas Eccleshare’s funny yet disturbing new play Instruction for Correct Assembly, marking his debut work for the Royal Court Theatre.
The basic situation is simple: Hari and Max, husband and wife respectively, are a middle aged suburban couple who decide to create an ideal flat-pack son out of constituent parts with a 30 day money back guarantee and an easy to follow construction manual. It gradually emerges that their real life son, Nick, who left for university, died of drug addiction. They assemble a replacement, Jan, who conforms to social norms and whose ideas and attitudes can be determined through remote control. The couple are certain that as long as they follow the instructions step by step, he’s going to be perfect. Needless to say, predetermined perfection proves to be an impossible dream.
Eccleshare here looks at what’s around the corner in the realm of technological advancement, while proving the darker side of human nature, in this case status conscious parents’ urge to micromanage their offspring, hoping that he will be a perfect replacement for their actual son. What the playwright has to say is true and relevant: we should love people for who they are rather than what we wish them to be. However while the play has a rich vein of humour running through it and is ingeniously staged, it lacks the emotional depth to reinforce its intellectual arguments.
Furthermore the drama is constructed in a sketchy rather confusing manner with scenes of the couple’s interaction with their mechanical son interwoven with scenes with their real life son, shunting back and forth in time and contrasting fallible humanity on the one hand with machine-tooled precision on the other.
Director Hamish Pirie also tends to over-emphasise the theme of the play by having the cast jerking about in a haltingly mechanical fashion. But designer Cai Dyfan has created a novel cinematic-futuristic rectangular aperture through which we first spy the couple in question and itty bitty scenes ensue accompanied by colour shifts on a gradually unfolding set.
Pirie elicits commendable performances from his strong cast. Jane Horrocks initially seems air-headed but manages to bring a deep desolation to the role of Max, while Mark Bonnar fully convinces as her husband Hari. Best of all though is Brian Vernel in the dual role of the baby faced, impressionable DIY son Jan and their actual flesh and blood son Nick, who proved such a disappointment and ended up on the scrap heap.
To summarise then, Instructions for Correct Assembly is a flawed but interesting evening in the theatre.
Instructions for Correct Assembly
Runs until Saturday 19 May 2018.
Box Office: 020 7565 5000Last modified: April 23, 2018