Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review: 'To Drone In The Rain' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 12th June 2019

To Drone In The Rain reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

She's there for me last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Throughout the day she's got my back, and ensures there's never a dull moment. She knows all my deepest secrets and darkest desires, has infinite patience to deal with the dull minutia of day-to-day life and knows the answer to every question. She even comes to the bathroom with me, where I can idly play Sonic the Hedgehog on her glistening glass face.

You've probably worked out by now that I don't have some creepy mechanical slave-woman tending to my every need: I'm talking about my phone. Much has been made of our increasing reliance to technology, and now Michael Ellis' To Drone In The Rain takes it to the creepy logical conclusion.

Set in a near future "where phones, laptops and all other technological services have become obsolete", we meet Tom (Michael Benbaruk). He's socially anxious to the point where the notion of human interaction makes him vomit into a bucket and appears to have some kind of psychosomatic condition that confines him to a wheelchair. He spends his days inside a Kubrickian monochrome studio apartment, delivering bespoke adventures to anonymous clients via a webcam.

He's taken care of by Drone Girl 9.1.13 (Nell Hardy), who is a combination of best friend, nurse, secretary, therapist and mother. We understand that this state of affairs is the norm, human beings retreating to isolation in favour of letting their android assistants interact with the world on their behalf. This extends as far as sending your Drone out to flirt with other Drones in the hope of finding love - presumably the understanding is that if two Drones get along then their owners will too.

Within this setup 9.1.13 realises that despite being programmed to care for Tom, her round-the-clock care is gradually infantilising him. He's increasingly childlike and demanding, relying on her for the simplest tasks and refusing to take responsibility for his actions. Plus there's the hunky and rebellious Drone Boy (Lino Facioli), who is offering 9.1.13 freedom from Tom and a new life where she calls the shots.
By far the most compelling part of the play is watching Tom slowly descend into helplessness as 9.1.13 struggles to work out what to do. We sense that Tom's social anxiety is a product of the insular society he lives in: he's perfectly capable of imagining detailed flights of fancy outside his apartment but utterly incapable of living them himself. And the more he's indulged by 9.1.13 the further he slides into helplessness. Michael Benbaruk plays this downward spiral very nicely, gradually minimising Tom's positive points and accentuating his flaws. This eventually leaves him as a pathetic caricature of a man - a mewling, diaper-shitting, alcoholic monster.

But the real heart of the play is Nell Hardy's 9.1.13. I've long been a fan of the laser-focused physical and psychological intensity Hardy brings to her roles and she doesn't disappoint here. The smartest decision the play makes is avoiding making this android character a sci-fi stereotype. The traditional way to write this type of character would be to focus on her grappling with strange human emotions and acting stiffly and awkwardly, like Data from Star Trek.

But, perhaps with the Tyrell Corporation slogan "More Human Than Human" in mind, 9.1.13 is totally emotionally literate and fully capable of philosophically comprehending her place in the world. Hardy plays this very nicely, threading the needle of her character realising her devotion might be poisonous. That's not to say that this character is indistinguishable from a human: Hardy moves with precision and power, striking stylised poses that reminded me of catwalk models. 

But 9.1.13 being by far the interesting character in the play is the root of my problem with it. Beyond the science fiction trappings, you can understand this is the story of a man and a woman. As such, it's more than a bit regressive to see a story about a loser guy dragging down a woman concluding with the woman sacrificing herself for his benefit. By this point in the story our sympathy for Tom has evaporated - so seeing him shuffle off into the sunset wearing a cowboy hat leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

I guess the fact that I cared about these characters fates means that something is working here: though I suspect it's the strength of the performances rather than some woolly writing. To Drone In The Rain is a smart bit of science fiction and has a neat hook, but could use a bit of editing and tweaking to accentuate its positive qualities.

To Drone In The Rain is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 15th June. Tickets here.

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