Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Girl in the Machine

Stef Smith
Theatre Space NE
The Customs House, South Shields

Corinne Kilvington (Polly) - rehearsal photo
Lawrence Neale (Owen) - rehearsal photo
Lawrence Neale (Owen) - rehearsal photo
Corinne Kilvington (Polly) - rehearsal photo
Lawrence Neale (Owen) & Corinne Kilvington - rehearsal photo

Polly (Corinne Kilvington) is a solicitor. She works from home. Her mobile is constantly announcing the arrival of texts. She’s constantly juggling a number of tablets. She rarely, if ever, goes out. Indeed, she seems to be working all the time. Most of her contact with the outside world is through technology. She seems content.

(She reminds me of Vashti in E M Forster’s short story The Machine Stops. Indeed, I suspect writer Stef Smith may well have intended that connection to be made.)

Owen (Lawrence Neale), her husband, is a nurse in a hospital and so is only at home for part of the day. He would like her to go out more. He brings her a present, a new electronic device—the “Black Box”—which, it is claimed, will help calm her, relax her, take her mind away from its constant preoccupation with work.

She tries it and likes what it does.

Girl in the Machine is set in a rather dystopian near future. There are enough similarities to now to feel familiar but also some very significant differences. For instance, everyone has a “Citizenship Chip” embedded in their skin, another example of the ubiquitousness of technology, and it’s a chip that has to be updated every now and then.

The play goes on to deal with the effects of the Black Box not only on Polly and Owen but on society as a whole, effects which are unexpected and frightening.

The big problem with setting a play in a future society is creating a clear picture of that society for the audience, so that they can understand immediately what is going on. It’s further compounded in Girl in the Machine by the fact that the setting is the near future so that dress and furnishings differ very little from now. Perhaps the most important factor, however, is that there has to be a considerable amount of exposition, particularly early in the play, not just to set the scene but to feed us the information we need to get the full impact, and inevitably this does slow the piece down initially.

Under the direction of Jamie Brown, Kilvington and Neale (together with the Voice of the Black Box, Imogen Banks) keep the pace up as best they can but it has to be said that the subtleties of their relationship do sometimes get obscured by the weight of the important background information contained in the dialogue. Conversely, however, sometimes that important background information can be obscured by the necessity to move the plot forward.

No criticism of the performances or direction is intended here, for the problem is in the writing and what I think is the writer’s intention, highlighting a society-wide threat of ever-increasing technological dominance in our lives, turns into more of a domestic tragedy.

That said, it’s a play well worth seeing, dealing with a topic—the way in which technology is dominating our lives more and more, and the human implications of that dominance—which will become ever more important as time passes.

(Incidentally, if anyone saw Stef Smith’s The Girl in the Machine at The Traverse during the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, it has developed into a very, very different play!)

Reviewer: Peter Lathan