I really want to like Stars or Mars latest sci-fi offering, Respawn. Not because I like science fiction – quite the opposite. I really don’t enjoy the genre in any form, be it films, books or television. There isn’t much sci-fi theatre out there, though. The only sci-fi production I can ever recall seeing is Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light. Light has the distinction of being my first five-star review, and it had nothing to do with the genre. I want to continue bucking my own trend by liking science fiction theatre (if you can call loving one show “bucking a trend”), but it can’t happen with Respawn.
The primary issue with this play is the script, a combination of Pinteresque vagueness and Beckettian lack of action set in a technology-ridden future. I’m sure playwright Susan Gray has an idea in her head of what she wants to communicate to the audience, but it struggles to transfer from page to stage. Her script is set in a world where people become artificial intelligences (AIs) when they die, but no clear message came through the muddled story. Characters were not named, instead referred to with pronouns. This added to the confusion. The programme states that two actors played multiple characters, but not all of the characters were clearly distinguished. Gray herself is credited with playing three roles, but two were so similar they seemed to be the same person. Melanie Crossey had a much clearer performance, playing an AI as a voiceover that lives in a hotel and interacts with living people, and the AI “in person”. Another structural issue lies in this occurrence: if the AIs don’t have bodies, why are we seeing them wearing Phantom of the Opera masks and performed as otherwise completely naturalistic characters? Even if the storyline were to be a clear-cut narrative, there is no overriding theme other than the idea that the AIs want to be human again, but can’t be. It is an interesting idea, but one that can serve as a starting point rather than the crux of an entire play.
Crossey’s performance is a saving grace of this production. With a confident but relaxed stage presence, she holds this convoluted one-act together. She is obviously a skilled performer that deserves the challenge of meaty, contemporary characters. A sound designer is credited, but no director, lighting director or script advisor. These creative roles would be a wise addition to the company’s upcoming Camden Fringe productions.
The Hackney Attic is an unconventional venue, more of a cabaret or comedy venue that a theatre. At the top of a cinema, it is a long, white room with tables rather than rows of seats and a staffed bar in the room. The stage lights are either on or off, the dressing rooms can be seen through a curtain, and a paint job is needed in order to achieve blackout. The space needs some alterations to become suitable for a wider range of performance styles, but the location is great. There was also no signage warning audiences of the strobe light effect that occurred several times in the play.
Furthering the sci-fi theatre genre is certainly a noble pursuit, as it is a genre sorely neglected. LA has Sci-Fest, but London is only this year bringing a celebration of the genre to the fringe at Chelsea Theatre in October. There is huge potential to reach a brand new audience base who spend their weekends at comicons and cosplay events rather than at the theatre. I admire Gray’s aim of developing science fiction theatre, but first she needs to continue refining her own craft.
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