The lights are harsh and bright; the set is sparse and comfortless. A man and a woman face us, divided by the breadth of the stage. We are here, we're told, for a reason: to act as judge, and perhaps executioner. We must vote on a proposal, choose between two very different paths… and depending on our decision, the woman in front of us may die.
Oh, and one more thing. She's actually a robot.
There's a lot to internalise here, and it's to playwright Melanie Anne Ball's credit that the story in context makes perfect sense. The woman – April – is the prototype of a new kind of digital assistant, a near-future evolution of Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa. She's been crafted as a perfect companion for the generally-unremarkable Adam, who sits nervously and unhappily on the other side of the stage. He's come to love April, but now she is malfunctioning… and, faced with the robot equivalent of terminal illness, she is here to ask our permission to die.
Peter Dewhurst makes a rounded character of Adam, his desperation tempered by an overweening possessiveness and selfish irritation at the suffering April's plight is causing him. Eve Ponsonby is equally convincing as the robotic April, maintaining the merest hint of other-worldly detachment, the precision of her movements subtly reinforcing that she's driven by pre-set computer code.
That code, it seems, gives her an enviable capability for self-awareness and introspection; she's analysed her role and her relationship with Adam, and she doesn't entirely like what she sees. Towards the end, when we learn the real reason why she's malfunctioning, the script poses fascinating questions about the times when friendships can do more harm than good. There's a genuinely profound insight here, one that got me thinking hard about my own very human life.
But it became clear, when the audience was daringly invited to join the debate, that most of those present had skipped over that theme. Some had focussed on equally-important topics around control and privilege; many more empathised with the simple pain of encountering a former loved one who doesn't love you back any more.
On the one hand, it's good that there's something here for everyone. On another level, though, it's oddly unsatisfying; when you embark on an exploration of so many different topics, you don't get very far before you have to turn back. I'd have preferred a narrower, deeper analysis, picking just one or two of these fascinating issues and helping us to understand them from every side.
And I'm not sure the format entirely works. By demanding that we vote for either April or Adam, it condemns them to be adversaries – clinging to love, but irreconcilably divided. That's simply not how their relationship comes across on stage, and so the choice we are forced to make feels a contrived one. During the open-floor discussion, one man remarked that he didn't quite understand why we were being asked the question in front of us; an acknowledgement, perhaps, that there are more nuanced options for April and Adam than the black-and-white ones we are offered.
A.I. Love You cracks open some huge topics, perhaps too huge to fit within a single play. And many of the threads it chooses to follow could be explored just as well without the distraction of a robot protagonist. But it's built on a clever and thought-provoking premise, and the acting is superb. It's well worth watching – and its themes are well worth talking about.