by guest critic Alistair Wilkinson
You could easily classify this production as “the one with the robot” but there is more to Spillikin, currently on tour throughout the UK. Despite the high level of artificial intelligence on show, this is a human story depicting the world of a woman going through Alzheimer’s, the struggles she faces and how we as a society care for those who need support. Plays on these themes need to be put on more frequently, however Spillikin could tell this story better.
Sally is an unaware widow, believing that her deceased husband is instead always at conferences. Raymond’s dying gift to his wife was a robot he built with the couple’s memories stored inside to keep Sally company. The lead actor (Judy Norman) is underwhelming in her role; her attempt to convey fragility and intimacy leads to her not projecting and connecting with the audience.
The younger versions of Sally and Raymond feel like contemporary teens instead of those growing up in the 1970’s. Leading writer/director Jon Welch’s script feels flimsy, under-researched and without intellect. The star of the show is Hannah Stephens, whose natural portrayal of a young Sally brings a desperately needed spirit to the piece, as well as heightened vulnerability and charm that leads to a carefully realised performance. It is a shame that her partner Mike Tonkin Jones, whose disappointing characterisation of a young Raymond, hinders Stephens on stage and leaves her fighting to keep the energy up.
The Q&A session post-show offers exploration of the intricate design of the robot, as well as the chance to ask questions to the cast and crew on the dramaturgy of the piece. However it is always disappointing when feedback is asked for, received, then not taken on board. It seems like legitimate questions surrounding the play’s merit are being deflected. When asked whether the robot actually learned anything throughout his time with Sally – something that is made clear in the text that it would, but yet it didn’t (one of too many misunderstood moments in writing) – Welch is abrasive and a little too defensive of his product, and instead of thanking the audience member for the valid feedback, he defends it in a way that was abrasive and cold.
The Q&A gives a bitter taste to the whole experience of the show. It seems that the technology takes precedent over the content of the narrative, and due to the well-deserved hype of robot maker Will Jackson’s wonderful creation, the direction and performances are left to wilt. See this show to revel at the wondrous innovation, but do not go to see clever writing or direction.
Spillikin runs through 19 March, then tours.
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