Electric Rosary

Tim Foley
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Breffni Holahan (Mary) Credit: Helen Murray
Saroja-Lily Ratnavel (Theresa) Credit: Helen Murray
Olwen May (Constance) Credit: Helen Murray
Suzette Llewellyn (Phillipa) Credit: Helen Murray
Jo Mousley (Elizabeth) & Breffni Holahan (Mary) Credit: Helen Murray
Jo Mousley (Elizabeth) & Olwen May (Constance) Credit: Helen Murray
Yandass Ndlovu (Child) Credit: Helen Murray
Breffni Holahan (Mary) Credit: Helen Murray
Breffni Holahan (Mary) & Cast Credit: Helen Murray

This winner of one of the judges' prizes at the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting (overall winner Heartworms, by Tim X Atack—who spoke to me for the BTG podcast—has yet to be produced) begins in a chapel room in a rather run-down convent, a room in which, according to the script, "you'll struggle to find God."

The school they once had has gone, and the Old Mother has recently died, leaving just five nuns: acting Mother Elizabeth, senior nun Constance, anxious Philippa, naïve but enthusiastic novice Thereasa and Patricia, whom we never see as she is ill in bed, apparently consuming lots of buns. Elizabeth decides to bring a robot in to help run the convent—they already have robots they refer to as 'reapers' helping in the fields—much to Thereasa's excitement and Constance's horror. Philippa falls somewhere between, as she lives to work and doesn't want tedious toil taken away from her, leading to some battles over the mop bucket.

If, like me, the idea of an electric nun makes you think of Douglas Adams's Electric Monk in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (a labour-saving device that "believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe"), robot Mary is very much the logical, non-believing sci-fi robot, but also is completely humanoid in appearance, learns like a modern AI device and is fully Internet-connected—and with a slightly sinister smile.

Just as Chekhov's three sisters have Moscow, the nuns have Ecuador, where the Old Mother witnessed a miracle and where Elizabeth, campaigning to be the next Mother, has promised to take them in summer... sometime.

All of this is against a backdrop of disputes in the wider society over the use of robots to replace people, with a group given the historically significant name of 'Luddites' taking up arms to destroy these machines and spouting Marxist doctrine. But Mary has been malfunctioning, or possibly transforming, and may have seen God—or perhaps was just overheating. But while Mary seems to be gaining something that looks like 'faith', Constance has hers tested when a miracle on which she was relying turns out to be not so miraculous.

Act 1 functions as a straightforward but well-written comedy—something we haven't seen much of recently at the Royal Exchange and which seems rare among Bruntwood winners. Act 2 keeps up the comedy but becomes more metaphysical, as Mary has more visions or visitations and becomes more human (what Kryten in Red Dwarf would refer to as 'breaking her programming'), ending with the question of whether she is just a machine, a non-person, to be left to the Luddites in order to save the people or whether she has gained a 'soul' and should be saved.

There are a couple of very different but equally great comic performances in Jazz Woodcock-Stewart's production, with Olwen May giving laid-back Constance a dry, cynical wit with perfect delivery and Saroja-Lily Ratnaval's Thereasa full of childish enthusiasm and constantly putting her foot in it. Suzette Llwellyn gives Philippa the tense nervousness of someone who is having what she sees as her reason for living taken away, and who occasionally falls back on chemical stimulants. Jo Mousley's Elizabeth is the mother hen trying to keep her small but wayward chicks together and advance her own cause. Breffni Holahan's Mary has the sinister edge ('uncanny valley') of something that seems human while having the strict logic of a machine, but becomes softer and more relatable later. Yandass Ndlovu is listed as only 'Child' but appears as the person in Mary's visions and again as the invading Luddite at the end—perhaps some significance is implied in this doubling.

The comic aspect of this play is very well written and perfectly delivered but it is rather long for a comedy, pushing three hours, and the ending did feel rather drawn out to me. When it turns serious, it seems to be trying to make some points about religion and belief and about what it might mean to be human in an age of artificial intelligence, but they aren't really developed enough to be significant.

But looked at as a quirky comedy with possibly some other dimensions, it is entertaining, funny and well performed and definitely worth seeing.

Reviewer: David Chadderton