Would you fuck a robot? My instinctive answer is no. The corpse-like uncanny valley creepiness of Real Dolls is nightmarish, it seems gross to have some kind of animated woman-shaped object hanging around, and let's face it, it's essentially a really expensive, overcomplicated wank.
But according to the programme for Nessah Muthy's new play Sex With Robots And Other Devices, I might soon be in the minority for holding this opinion, as a 2016 study indicates that more than 40% of heterosexual men they surveyed could imagine buying a sex robot for themselves now or in the next 5 years.
It's a common observation that domestic technological development is driven by sex, with the porn industry's adoption VHS cited as a reason for Betamax's failure, early adoption of the internet fuelled by easy access to porn and now robotic technology being used to create quasi-lifelike sex dolls. Sex With Robots imagine the future that might be around the corner, presenting a series of situations in which problems arise with the new robotic partners.
These vignettes are performed by Isaura Barbé-Brown, Deshaye Gayle and Eleri Jones, and take place in a world where sex robots are still a novelty but increasingly common, with the 'rules' on interacting with them still solidifying. We see a woman recovering from a miscarriage ordering a replica of herself to fulfil her partner's needs, someone using a robotic version of themselves to care for their Alzheimer's suffering partner, a man forever reliving one amazing night with his ex-partner, people dealing with overly attached robots, worrying about consent issues with them and so on.
It's a broad, intelligent and imaginative tapestry, and the cast do a great job of quickly sketching out individual characters. Best of the bunch is Isaura Barbé-Brown, whose performances as various robotic characters send a shiver down the spine. She's got a masterful control of body language, her movements landing just on the right side of inhuman.
The show trips a little as the subject is a bit over-familiar these days: leaving aside the fact that this feels pretty Black Mirror-y, there's been numerous stage shows that have explored the same territory recently - for example, AI Love You at Vault Festival and Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court.
Slightly more egregiously the quickfire vignettes mean we get a lot of setup and not much resolution. So, we see a woman beginning to get jealous of her husband using a robotic replica of her, but do not see that spill over into confrontation. The Alzheimer's patient never has the moment of clarity where she realises what her partner has done. A woman disturbed by her partner setting the robot to 'sin mode' is merely in the early stages of perturbation rather than exploring what this means for their relationship and so on (frustratingly, we also never learn exactly what 'sin mode' entails, or for that matter, how robot sex differs from human sex).
It results in a consistently interesting yet slightly shallow work that's content to posit questions but won't attempt any answers. The obvious response to that criticism is that as this is speculative there simply aren't answers to be had - but that strikes me more as a failure of imagination.
You won't regret seeing Sex With Robots. It's a nicely written, smartly turned out and precisely performed bit of drama. But if it were allowed to breathe a little more and expand its dramatic morsels into something more substantial it'd be a great play rather than 'merely' a good one.
Sex With Robots And Other Devices is at the King's Head Theatre until 2nd June 2018. Tickets here.