Artificially Yours ★★

Aaron Thakar’s dark comedy Artificially Yours poses the question would you trust AI to fix your relationship?

The Promethean myth is one that it has piqued the interest of writers through the generations. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis right up to Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2023 Oscar-winning Poor Things, storytellers have been attracted over and over to the notion of some forbidden knowledge being stolen from the gods for the benefit of mankind, often channelled through some man-made automaton. 

In the latest iteration, Aaron Thakar’s Artificially Yours taps into the contemporary debate about AI technology and how far it is to be trusted to intervene in human affairs. In this drama, Agapē (voiced by Katherine Moran) is an Alexa/Siri style, AI relationship therapy device, here deployed by three differing couples in their homes to help navigate the travails of human relationships. 

All images by Andrew Fosker

Pippa and Martin (Leslie Ash and Paul Giddings) are the show’s 50-something couple. Or rather ex-couple. Divorced with kids, Martin wants to introduce their daughter to his new (young) girlfriend and is seeking agreement from his ex-wife. Elsewhere, a mostly-unemployed actor Ash (Aaron Thakar) is growing increasingly unnerved by the increasing career success as a magazine writer of his girlfriend Lilah (Destiny Mayers). And rounding off, the third pairing sees Ellie (Ella Jarvis), burned by infidelity in her previous relationship, worrying that her new boyfriend Noah (Jake Mavis) will also be unfaithful to her. 

In the midst of these pairings, Agapē sits on the respective coffee tables, always listening to its assigned relationship, its algorithms constantly aimed at optimising harmony between its assigned couple. It has the ability to confirm whether one of them is lying. It can act as a breathalyser should the need arise. And as omnipresent therapist, it will intervene when things are getting heated with helpful suggestions how to de-escalate the tension. 

Billed as a dark comedy, Artificially Yours manages to be neither convincingly. While playwright Thakar manages to get some decent laughs across the play’s overstretched running time, the humour in the script is wildly uneven. ‘Jokes’ such as whether Martin’s girlfriend Ariel sounds “like a mermaid or a washing powder” or leaden lines such as “you could start a row in solitary confinement” should have been nixed at the first readthrough. A good scene in which a double date between the two young couples goes badly wrong has moments of humorous insights about social mores but it feels like an extended sketch or a short film rather than an organic element within a full-length play. 

Thankfully, a full-throttle performance by Jake Mavis, as the brilliantly insensitive, generally clueless ‘himbo’ Noah, raises the show’s laugh average considerably. Charismatic but wonderfully guileless, he energetically manages to wring every ounce of comedy from any given scene regardless of whether the script is working with him or not. His charm allows him to be laugh-out-loud funny without ever tipping into being irritating. A remarkable achievement considering this is Mavis’ theatre debut. Very much one to watch for the future. 

As a drama, Artificially Yours fails on many levels. The characters never feel like flesh and blood. They are more like ciphers, vehicles for delivering whichever punchline or plot point is required. The particular unhappiness of each pairing feels mostly performative because they are written with such shallowness as never to gift them the unpredictability that comes with genuine human behaviour.

Thakar offers no gems of insight into relationships because the pairings are so lightly drawn. Would a grown man getting groceries really buy a box of Maltesers to take to a double date? Do fifty-something exes really play Wii together? 

While the concept of an AI device in a home helping to regulate human relationships gives Artificially Yours a thin veneer of a zeitgeist hot topic, questions of the intrusiveness and appropriateness of artificial intelligence are merely touched upon. There are passing mentions of employees being let go because of robots. There’s the suggestion that an automated device offering a more supportive ear than a human partner could be seductive, even addictive. And the play seeds the more sinister notion that these devices will naturally gravitate towards exceeding the boundaries set for them. But there is an obviousness with which these are done that you yearn for the writer to drill down past the surface as there could be rich seams in this material. 

The constant switching scenes between the couples means that no story is allowed to gather dramatic momentum. The cast dutifully rush on and off at speed ensuring the energy doesn’t dip, but in doing so, the focus of the drama – can AI be trusted to fix your relationship – is blunted. There are sections of the play where Agapē is seemingly forgotten by the writer, with scenes where the device is not mentioned and plays no part of the action. Having three storylines running concurrently dilutes the dramatic exploration of artificial intelligence being utilised within a loving relationship.

Artificially Yours feels like it has been taken to stage too soon. The cast are strong, with Leslie Ash and Ella Jarvis both finding moments that connect well with the audience, alongside the aforementioned standout performance from Jake Mavis. But the script needs workshopping to sharpen its focus, to find a clear narrative arc and decide which characters are needed to tell that story. 

Watchable but disappointingly shallow – Agapē, show me ★★ 2 stars

Artificially Yours Tickets

Artificially Yours continues at Riverside Studios until Sunday 21 April 2024

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