In Alan Ayckbourn’s prescient vision of the future in his 1987 play, Henceforward, major technological developments in telecommunications and robotics are accompanied by a breakdown of society with marauding girl gangs and creative types who relate to emotion only through the medium of technology.
At Derby Playhouse Diego Pitarch triumphantly confronts any design issues by creating what he calls “a retrospective future”. The apartment set resembles an old-fashioned library, with its balcony shelves and steep ladders. In place of the orderly clutter of books are radios, speakers, tape recorders and so forth, working and non-working. Television screens all over the stage and auditorium carry answerphone messages as well as images from outside. Pitarch’s designs, and the similarly creative work of Kelvin Towse (sound) and Kit Lane (video), give Karl Wallace’s production every chance of convincing.
Yet it does so only intermittently. To an extent this is the fault of a script that lacks the sharpness and the crazy internal logic we look for in Ayckbourn. He springs the usual surprises (a dramatic and confusing opening, a menacingly atmospheric finale), but there are hefty chunks of exposition and characters we are ultimately expected to believe in that remain two-dimensional.
Jerome is a composer, living in a no-go area ruled by the Daughters of Darkness with whom he has reached some sort of a compromise deal. His only companion is Nan, the robot, which he has programmed (pretty unsuccessfully) as a house servant. His self-obsession has caused his wife and daughter to leave him. Attempting to gain access to the child, he hires an actress to pretend to be living with him in a stable relationship. When she heads off back to the comparatively safe world of Central London, he realises that the answer lies in the fact that he can transform and re-programme Nan.
The second half, involving the visit of wife, child and relationships adviser, is equally convoluted, as though Ayckbourn, the master of audience confusion, has for once confused himself as well.
Julian Protheroe as Jerome alternates rumpled amiability, semi-detached vagueness and violent outbursts with some conviction. Sherry Baines and Emma Fildes offer entertaining and precisely timed comic turns as Nan and nicely contrasting performances as real people, notably Emma Fildes’ earnest, eager to please and faintly Joyce Grenfell-ish young actress. Disappointingly, though, most of the humour comes from rather dated farce, like the robot’s movements and mixed up responses or the excellent Tom Godwin’s caricature counsellor.