Living forever is a theme of countless works of art, literature, and theatre, from the beginning of time to the present day. The thought of cheating mortality, despite its improbability, tantalises. Stef Smith puts a technological spin on the age-old topic, transporting us to a not-too-distant future where ‘Black Box’ – a mysterious hospital treatment for the ill and dying – tunes into its patients’ life rhythms to prey on their fears of death. At the centre of this drama are young, successful couple who come into contact ‘Black Box’ casually, through their jobs at the hospital and law firm. What follows is a 75 minute journey as the world – and one relationship – are consumed by the promise of eternal life.
The concepts underlying Girl in the Machine are troubling, thought-provoking, and ultimately humanising. It plays very much like an episode of Black Mirror, which does not always do favours to the production. Charlie Brooker’s show has defined the market of near-future sci-fi dystopias – especially with its Netflix episodes last year – and Girl in the Machine cannot quite break out of its shadow. The writing’s declamatory voice may be partly at fault here, as it constructs a layer of artifice between the performance and audience and dampens the raw, primal emotions at stake in life’s search for meaning. Additionally, this play is an ambitious piece with lots of described action happening outside the couples’ four walls, and one wanted to see the chaos unfurling in the outside world as ‘Black Box’ took over lives.
However, the play’s tension building success, strong central performances, and unflinching honesty with which it approaches human connection and mortality leave a strong impression. While not explicitly a play about addition, Girl in the Machine captures the overwhelming irrationality of cravings in a startlingly accurate fashion given the sci-fi subject matter. Additionally, as in the strongest episodes of Black Mirror, it preys on fears about the seemingly benign or beneficial developments of modern technological life.
Rosalind Sydney (Polly) and Michael Dylan (Owen) are both excellent as the central couple, torn apart by the new technology invading their lives. Unfortunately, the script does not allow enough time for the audience to see the happy, healthy couple before petty fighting about careers and then the allure of ‘Black Box’ fatally intervene, which somewhat lessens the emotional impact of Polly’s addiction. As with the story, both are slightly hindered by the forcedly poetic dialogue, but this does not affect the believability of the characters.
The traverse stage at Edinburgh’s premier new writing venue serves the production’s intimacy well – it is as if the audience is looking into a private abode, privy to every moment. Sounds were especially effectively utilised to build tension.
Were it not for a few pacing issues and some clunky dialogue, Girl in the Machine would be a standout. As it is, it is a strong, life-affirming, thought-provoking piece of theatre that never shies from meaty issues.
Girl in the Machine plays at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until 22nd April. Tickets are £18 (£8-14 for concessions) and performances are at 7.30pm Monday through Saturday with 2.30pm Saturday matinees as well.
Polly – Rosalind Sydney
Owen – Michael Dylan
Voice – Victoria Liddelle
Writer – Stef Smith
Director – Orla O’Loughlin
Designer – Neil Warmington
Lighting Designer – Sergey Jakovsky
Composer/Sound Designer – Kim Moore
Choreography – White & Givan
Assistant Director – Nikki Kalkman
Production Manager – Kevin McCallum
Chief Electrician – Renny Robetson
Deputy Electrician – Claire Elliot
Head of Stage – Gary Staerck
Lighting and Sound Technician – Tom Saunders
Stage Manager – Danni Bastian
Deputy Stage Manager – Gillian Richards
Assistant Stage Manager – Shellie Barrowcliffs
Costume Supervisor – Sophie Ferguson