Alan Munden, Alzheimer's disease, Anna Munden, Dementia, Edinburgh Fringe, Helen Ryan, Jon Welch, Michael Tonkin-Jones, Pipeline Theatre Company, Pleasance Dome, Robot, Robots, Spillikin – A Love Story, Theatre Review
Pipeline Theatre Company and Jon Welch’s “Spillikin – A Love Story,” which is still established at the Pleasance Dome, is an extraordinary drama with an immense amount of beauty and danger flowering within it. Alas, it is almost ruined by the wooden acting of the cast member who plays the nurse. With his emotionless voice and stiff, clunky performance, Robothespian would struggle anyway. When placed next to an actor like Helen Ryan, who plays the Alzheimer’s victim Sally, he is immediately dying in front of us. Moreover, the programme indicates that we are watching this actor’s Fringe debut, but I swear that I have seen him in a student production of Death of a Salesman from several years ago. I can remember the voice.
It seems like an injustice to maintain that “Spillikin” is the best Fringe play I have seen so far this year, because no other production has a live, or at least a realistically autonomous, humanoid robot at their disposal. Nonetheless, however hard it might be, I urge you to tear your eyes away from the robot. This play’s acting is superb; the dialogue is snapping and crackling; there is a kind of loveliness everywhere in the story; and yet on a certain level down in its depths, this is a very sinister play as well. I suspect that the majority of theatregoers will opt for the most comfortable interpretation of “Spillikin,” but let us try to trace the outline of the jaws which are gently but quite definitely holding us.
There are two Sallys and two mini plays. The younger Sally (Anna Munden) is meeting her future husband Raymond (Michael Tonkin-Jones) for the first time. It is a mildly quirky, Hollywood scenario: he is the geeky, bashful young robot-maker; she is the glamorous rock chic, who is rebelling against her middle-class parents insofar as this is practical. The two rapidly discover that they are surprisingly likeminded. Their story is sweet but not syrupy. The dialogue is lively enough to jump clear of Hugh Grant’s romcom standards.
Many years later and Raymond is dead. Sally is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and she alludes constantly to her husband as if he was just inexplicably absent, perhaps away at a conference. At the peak of his brilliance, however, Raymond had constructed a robot which will now act as a companion for Sally in her final days. The robot apparently contains many of Raymond’s memories and he, or rather it, can consummately impersonate its creator.
At first we are inclined to project a human personality on to the talkative, swivelling, constantly whirring humanoid. But Sally and the robot’s minds soon sync together to create an effect which is hideous. The robot has no consciousness or free will, whilst Sally’s mind has itself degenerated to the point of resembling malfunctioning machinery. The couple are swept along in an uncanny mental dance. Sally confesses about a long-past act of infidelity to the robot and eventually, by way of some algorithm, the robot can respond with mechanical forgiveness. Perhaps Raymond always knew about the infidelity and, haunted by a feeling that he is replaceable, he had sent an indestructible Raymond to posthumously colonise his wife’s home. The robot explains that it can be switched off if Sally meets “someone else.” Sally is, though, largely dependent upon the robot and she is soon fighting to be free of its literally mechanical love.
Sally is frequently interrupted by the enacted memories of her younger romcom self and the young Raymond. By contrast, the robot is, it is implied, an inauthentic ghost. The memory of Sally’s husband has infinitely more spirit. Yet Sally’s memories are a finite and increasingly depleted resource.
“Spillikin” is reminiscent of the 2004 movie Birth, in which Nicole Kidman’s character became convinced that she had met a ten-year-old boy who was a reincarnation of her husband. But this play is deep and broad enough to avoid the sense that everything has been loaded on to a gimmick. “Spillikin” is dark but far from hopeless, expressing as it does as an intelligent fascination with the choices that confront those who might not outlive their partners. It reminds us that we all need to leave behind beloved memories and loving care.