Reviewer's Rating

AI is one of the biggest challenges and fascinations of our era and yet to date there are few plays that really engage with it in a deep and searching fashion. Lauren Gunderson’s new work, showing for the first time at the Hampstead Theatre, offers an impressive account of the strengths and pitfalls that we must all now engage with; but then it misfires by trying to convert the narrative into a thriller that does not convince or compel.

At the outset we meet Merril, a talented computer programmer, who appears to be engaged in a telephone call with her sister, Angie. But it turns out Angie, with whom she had a turbulent relationship, has disappeared over a year ago. What we are listening to is a conversation between Merrill and and an AI composite of her sister created through entering all the digital records associated with Angie into a computer programme. The voice and mannerisms and preferences are the same and later a video image of Angie appears on a screen too. But how much is there beyond this? Is this simply a kind of therapy for Merril as she copes with grief? Or is there a primitive form of consciousness recreated that can make independent interventions in the present day?

We see this explored in two ways that introduce further characters into the mix. The first involves a rapprochement between Merril and her former girlfriend, Raquel, with whom she split at the peak of her grief over Angie’s disappearance. This is encouraged by ‘Angie’ who seems to be looking after her sister in a way the real, rebarbative Angie could not, all of which seems to suggest that the recreated ‘Angie’ is a more benign version of the original. There are some very interesting reflections at this point on how AI may best be seen as a reality enhanced in ways we want rather than in line with past realities.

A second, but less rewarding direction emerges as Gunderson ponders whether the algorithm ‘Angie’ can be used to solve the disappearance of the original woman. Here we meet another character, Brin, the dysfunctional mother of both Merril and Angie. Once the data on her phone is provided perhaps ‘Angie’can join up the dots and find out whether Merril’s sister is really alive or dead? It is really at this point that the drama begins to lose credibility. Brin is an underwritten, stereotypical character, much less richly drawn than the other three roles; and the series of connections that are made to set up the denouement are wholly unconvincing. Even making allowances for the most incompetent manifestations of modern policing, you have to suspend disbelief completely to think that traditional methods would not have got there first.

At the heart of this play is a truly superb performance by MyAnna Buring. She crosses a huge range of emotions in her portrayal of Merril, from savvy, sceptical tech nerd through to vulnerably feminine and beyond into desperation and despair. She really holds the play together with an admirably tough passion and focused energy. Equally good is Dakota Blue Richards who is eerily plausible as the large-language chatbot. She occupies a narrow ledge where from one angle she seems to be stiffly artificial and formulaic, and from another all too plausibly human. Yolanda Kettle and Abigail Thaw have much less to work with, but they make the most of their opportunities.

For the greater part of the action the set is an aridly bleak monochrome box, populated as needed with electronic apparatus. Scenes are punctuated by sharp blackouts with the proscenium edged in light – as if a computer window were being abruptly closed and another opened. Design values mirror the unsparing, unflinching tone of a play that is genuinely and admirably engaged in exploring the consequences of a tech-dominated world and should perhaps have remained in that world for its duration.