Straight comedies are something of a rarity in the West End and science fiction fables even rarer so the arrival of Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential, his 53rd play, in amidst the abundance of musicals and smatterings of serious drama, is refreshing to say the least.
The play is a sort of Pygmalion meets Blade Runner in which a beautiful actoid (that is an android that acts) develops human feelings, falls in love with her mentor/scriptwriter and makes a desperate bid for freedom. Hearing that, you might expect the production to exhibit a futuristic feel. But Ayckbourn, who also directs, has decided this is the not-too-distant future. Aside from a few flat-panelled control panels and some videotapes the size of floppy discs, everything looks very contemporary in Roger Glossop's set.
The sci-fi elements of the play are revealed to be, not leaps of fantasy, but merely extensions of current technological and social trends. The death of the fax machine (which one character has never heard of) and the development of actoids have already been predicted. And certainly, the seeds have been well and truly sown for the dominance of low-IQ TV.
In Ayckbourn's world, shows are no longer written or acted, but merely forumulae remixed and regurgitated by computers. Which doesn't leave much for washed up film director Chandler Tate and aspiring writer Adam Trainsmith to do. But then young Adam notices that one actoid, Jacie Triplethree, seems to laugh spontaneously. Love, script development and a homage to silent film pratfalls follow.
Without a doubt, the evening belongs to Janie Dee as Jacie. She captures perfectly the actoid's robotic judders, mechanised voice and increasing wonder as she learns more about the wider world outside the television studio. She also gets the biggest laughs, dancing along to ZZ Topp, throwing custard pies and tripping through Jacie's medley of past TV characters as her circuits go haywire.
Matthew Cottle, as Adam, and David Soul, as the washed up alcoholic director, are adequate enough, and Jacqueline King makes for an amusing ball-breaking boss, with more than a nod to Dynasty's Alexis.
The action becomes a bit drawn out in the second act and rather familiar. There's the dress shop scene that apes the one from Pretty Woman, the restaurant scene that apes the one from When Harry Met Sally and so on. (Adam's comment that 'the world is full of lines by other people - who's original anyway?' is more than a little ironic.) But rest assured, the happy ending is never far away and Dee's antics are always entertaining. There's much more than comic potential in that girl.
Note: The following review dates from Comic Potential's premiere in 1998 at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Cast your mind forward to the not too distant future. A time when television channels and trashy soap operas number so many that there are not enough human performers to play all the roles. Enter Jacie Triplethree (Janie Dee), one of many actoids whose robotic skills now grace the screen. This is science fiction Alan Ayckbourn style, a love story involving a faulty android and a human scriptwriter (Adam, played by Nicholas Haverson), both of whom get their component parts in a twist.
Ayckbourn has journeyed into the future previously and 1987's Henceforward even centred around a similarly defective robot. But Comic Potential is unlike anything you'll have seen before and is both stunningly entertaining and incredibly funny.
Dee is the star of the show and her performance is anything but robotic, grabbing by the horns a demanding role that involves, amongst other things, dancing to ZZ Top and the emptying of her waste unit.
Her actoid develops those two wonderful human feelings - a sense of humour and romance. The first act is something of a mini Pygmalion, as Jacie is trained in the art of taking a pratfall and hurling a custard pie by Adam and alcoholic ex-Hollywood film director Chandler Tate (Keith Bartlett). While slapstick nonsense is hardly cerebral fodder and something we have seen so many times before don't, whatever you do, let that put you off - here it is presented with such glorious panache, eclipsing even the silent screen comedy from which it is drawn.
As Jacie's thoughts and emotions develop she falls in love with the mutually admiring Adam and the two run off together, even though Jacie faces having her parts melted down for such un-actoid actions. Ayckbourn's point is that emotions are complex; when you lose control you feel guilty at having revealed some part of yourself and mistrust your own feelings. And that is the same whether you are humanoid or android.
Roger Glossop's set and Kath Geraghty's lighting are quite minimalist given that the futuristic setting could have been open to wild extravagance. John Pattison has also resisted the temptation to provide a John Williams style Star Wars soundtrack. And this is all appropriate, the technical excellence doesn't get in the way or dare to outshine an amazing play.
Ayckbourn's a big sci-fi fan, apparently, and, like the genre he admires he has used the future to say something about present day human experiences. Comic Potential, which does more than fulfil the potential the title alludes to, is an inventive piece of comedy genius that will remind you why you love the theatre.