Established in 2009, Edinburgh’s Strange Town Youth Theatre has developed into something of an institution for theatrical experimentation in the City and is known for pushing the boundaries of what young people are capable of. With no less than three separate plays kicking off at the Traverse this week, tonight is the turn for Tuesday night’s 14-18 year olds to show what they could do, and they certainly did not disappoint.
The talented acting of this magnificent bunch, I counted twenty, combined with Isla Cowan’s thought-provoking futuristic script and Catherine Ward-Stoddart’s crisp direction, is certainly a very watchable combination. Although there is no choreographer or MD mentioned in the programme, the movement and music selection are excellent throughout, from the straight lines marching to a pounding digital beat (computer code perhaps?) to the haywire rushing around of humans and androids conveying neural networks possibly (?), there are some really nice images and synergies on stage. Simple lighting by George Cort also synchronises perfectly with the music and action to great effect.
The story is set in The Kin Factory an android making and repairing facility of the future. Harvested memories are being fed to the ‘child’ androids by trainers to allow them to learn in a natural way. We follow Agnes, played brilliantly by Esther Bolton, a new training recruit on her first day as she is shown around and inducted into the factory.
Cleverly simple primary-coloured costumes help us to identify trainers, techs, androids and of course the white coated ‘scientist’ bosses, setting up a nice chronal hierarchy, which both reinforces the dystopian strictures but also helps the audience to remember and identify the multiple characters.
Here we see Kit (Katy Thorne) the android falling in love with her human trainer, Ash (Ruby Tansey). ‘I’m not just eye candy, I have a soul’ implores Kit, and ‘you have to have a soul to be able to love someone, don’t you?’. Really nicely and convincingly played by both actors, although Tansey in particular really shines.
In another storyline we find Ben (Lewis Cameron) trying to recreate his younger brother Jason who died of Leukaemia by downloading his memories into an android (Charlie Craigie-Halkett), which unfortunately just keeps glitching after a few minutes.
Two shining stainless steel gurneys are used very effectively to wheel androids in and out of the set and certainly help to keep up the ‘them’ and ‘us’ scenarios.
Joker in the pack, Charlie Cook, plays Ben, a techie who uses gallus humour to get through the boredom of his mundane job, and brings some much needed laughs.
There really is a lot of good stuff here, I get hints of Netflix, ‘Black Mirror’ series, or ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, by Philip K Dick (which became Blade Runner)’, undertones of the classic Sci Fi Film, ‘Alien’ and a sprinkling of the very recent book on AI, ‘Scary Smart’, by Mo Gawdat. My only criticism is that I think it could have been even darker and introduce greater threat perhaps to drive the story forward. At times we had klaxons going off and lights flashing, reminded me of Ripley running through the dark tunnels of the Nostromo, but really without any end product. I would have liked to have seen an android (Nexus 6?) go haywire perhaps?
In the spirit of the experimental nature of this youth theatre production, my opinion here is more of a summary, rather than a critical artistic review. Likewise, I have not allocated a star rating to this piece.
Given that we are at the start of the great AI revolution this production is bang on the money, simmering with clever ideas and perceptive writing, and delivered with great and committed acting. It reminds us all that in the world of AI, a lot can change very quickly; will we be living in a brave new world or are we rushing headlong towards a dystopian disaster. Only time will tell.
Reviewer: Greg Holstead
Reviewed: 16th June 2023