Constant Companions – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Constant Companions – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (3)

Bu Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe, September 2023

Androids have been a recurring theme in several Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, so it is not surprising that for his 89th play, Constant Companions, he develops the theme to explore the moral implications of a world that is being increasingly controlled by the use of Artificial Intelligence.

An article in the programme by Amin Al-Habaibeh, Professor of Intelligent Engineering Systems at Nottingham Trent University, sums up the premise soberingly,

‘…If AI is designed to mimic human beings, its survival instinct and consciousness might develop gradually over decades. As such, it might stop being merely a tool to support us and become an entity in its own right. If that happens, there’s a real possibility it could then become capable of taking self-interested decisions.’

The time setting is given as ‘some time soon to come’. The stage layout is very much in Kevin Jenkins’ design voice, divided into three sections for the three separate, but connected, scenarios probed by the production, and Trigger Johnson’s lighting plan is superbly controlled. Sir Ayckbourn has directed Constant Companions himself.

Constant Companions – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (2)

“Moral questions”

The action of the first ‘play within a play’ happens in Don’s bedroom. Don (Andy Cryer) has taken delivery of a sex android, programmed to fulfil all his manly desires, but the snag is that it is in kit form and needs to be constructed first. Ayckbourn’s capacity for humour comes to the fore as disaster follows disaster, and Don realises that his dreamed-of nights of passion are not going to happen anytime soon.

Engineer, Winston (Leigh Symonds), is in the loft of the DeSantos household, having been called in to adjust the emotional seat of android ED (Naomi Peterson), whom Andrea DeSantos (Tanya Loretta Dee) believes to have seduced her impressionable teenage son. It transpires that ED has more understanding of human functioning than anyone gives her credit for and is not afraid to use her knowledge.

In the only one of the vignettes to progress through the decades, formidable Lorraine (Alexandre Mathie) is an employee of Mr DeSantos’ law firm. She begins her journey married to a has-been celebrity who cares more about his own image than keeping his wife happy. JAN 60 (Richard Stacey), the office android, on the other hand, will do anything to please her. Sylvia (Georgia Burnell) is the legal assistant who desperately tries to speak sense into the situation, but the inevitable happens; the husband is ditched for an ever-attentive AI partner. The years pass, the complexities of human ageing occur, and salient moral questions need to be addressed.

Constant Companions – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (1)

“Carefully crafted”

The music providing a segue between scenes is a piece by the Dutch classical quartet ORBI (the Oscillating Revenge of the Background Instruments) who specialize in taking rock classics (think Muse, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Metallica, amongst others) and playing them with what are usually considered background and bass instruments – Bassoon, Double Bass, Hammond Organ, and Drums/Percussion. Bizarre, fascinating, inventive, and if you listen carefully, you can quite imagine that androids had had a hand in the performance. It’s an inspired choice.

This is the only one of Ayckbourn’s plays that I have watched (and I have watched many) where I didn’t feel the in-the-round aspect worked well. From my seat, I couldn’t see the image on the box Don unpacked, so the humour of that was lost. Similarly, much of Winston’s technical work on, and interaction with, ED was seen only by those on one side of the auditorium; those of us seated elsewhere missed it. Nor was I aware of how cluttered Don’s bedroom was until I watched the stage setter in the interval fill a laundry basket full of objects that I hadn’t seen! Little things, and I feel unkind mentioning them, but combined with drops in sound level at times, they meant that the full impacts of a carefully crafted, thought-provoking script, and a truly talented company of actors, were diminished.

That said, there were some emotional and touching moments, particularly in Winston’s lines, played beautifully by Symonds, that demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, that whilst the inevitable outcomes of an inexorable march of AI technology is a scary one, an android will never replace the essentially human traits that may be messy and complicated at times, but are vital markers of true relationship and interaction.

‘Constant Companions’ is at Stephen Joseph Theatre until 7th October
Images: Tony Bartholomew


Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.