I recently introduced a voice-activated Amazon-compatible kettle into my kitchen, whereby I no longer need to get up to switch the kettle on, and can instead ask Alexa to do it for me. Wonderful, I thought – the progressions in AI technology are truly revolutionary. What next, a robot to fill it with water, too? Then Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play had me contemplating putting it back in the box and sending it back.
Constant Companions is Alan’s 89th play and combines his characteristic humour with his talented playwriting abilities to create a production that showcases his knack for thought-provoking, trend-setting theatre. The 84-year-old has seemingly always had his finger on the pulse, and this highly entertaining show highlights this skill in a way which says so much about both the present and the future.
Set in the ‘not so distant future’, Constant Companions sees lonely bachelor Don attempt to assemble his new sex robot with the help of his auto-engineer friend Winston, who, at the other end of the telephone is recalibrating an eco-domestic maid called ED, who belongs to the De Santos. The De Santos are clients to successful lawyer Lorraine, who works with secretary Sylvia and android caretaker JAN 60. As Ayckbourn weaves their stories together, the audience is invited to explore the intricacies of human relationships in a world where artificial intelligence and human emotions meet.
At the heart of the narrative is the relationship between Lorraine and JAN 60 – the android caretaker with pre-programmed small talk and a humour modification. Lorraine, portrayed by Alexandra Mathie, is left heartbroken when her husband forgets her 60th birthday and seeks comfort in Richard Stacey’s JAN 60, whose robotic movements and vocal delivery are fascinating to watch. His portrayal of an android was highly convincing, from the subtlest hand gestures, to his stance and signature laugh.
The cast of seven portray the wide-ranging views and opinions that people have on AI, from Mrs De Santos horror at the fact they could be given android rights, to those who want to fully embrace tech like Don. It also delves into the reasons why some may bring AI into their lives, be it for companionship, convenience or caretaking.
Each and every character delivered strong performances, seamlessly embodying the diverse characters that populate Ayckbourn’s world, from the slightly menacing and deceptive robot ED portrayed by Naomi Petersen, to Leigh Symonds’ kindhearted Winston, who’s character development throughout the production is endearing to watch.
Ayckbourn’s wit and compassion shine through in the storyline as he delves into the societal implications of artificial intelligence and the potential consequences of our increasing reliance on technology for companionship and assistance. Its reflective and provocative nature conjures a whole host of questions about what the future holds, from robot rights to anti-android acts.
As the first British playwright to receive both Olivier and Tony Special Lifetime Achievement Awards, Alan Ayckbourn continues to push boundaries with Constant Companions, and solidifies himself as one of the greatest playwrights of our generation. Having now seen The Girl Next Door, Family Album and Absurd Person Singular, alongside Constant Companions, I can confidently say Alan is one whose work I most look forward to seeing each time a show makes its way to the New Vic Theatre.
Speaking about the production, Alan Ayckbourn said: “Reading so much about the inevitable arrival of AI into our society – some would say it’s already here! – I felt a cautious look forward might be in order. Are we really prepared for an encounter with another race? Not from outer space, but one of our own creation which will inevitably eventually turn out to be a lot smarter than we are? Honestly, the human race! As if we didn’t have enough problems already…”
Constant Companions is a must-see for those who appreciate Alan Ayckbourn’s signature blend of humour, insight, and social commentary. The cautionary tale is a testament to his enduring creativity and his ability to tackle timely and relevant themes, inviting us to consider the implications of an increasingly tech-driven future that will make fans of Back to the Future smile. Though I have decided to keep the kettle…
Catch Constant Companions at The New Vic from October 24 to November 4. Buy your ticket to see it here.