I mean who among us wouldn’t want to replace our merely disappointing family members with cheap, well-behaved automata? That’s the premise – kinda – to this Royal Court debut from writer Thomas Eccleshare.
Max (Jane Horrocks) and Hari (Mark Bonnar) are a couple with a nice home and a happy domestic life. The only thing that’s not worked out is their son, Nick (Brian Vernel), who has turned out to be a criminal, an addict and an agonising disappointment.
Their solution? Jån: a robot replica of their son, physically identical, but with a ‘better’ personality.
In a smartly non-linear structure that often leaves us guessing whether we’re watching Nick or Jån, Eccleshare says a few clever, understated things about the damage parents can do their children – and themselves – by assuming they know what’s best. Hari and Max are not cliched selfish babyboomers, but we see constant hints at how they have blithely set Nick off on his rootless path. They have thrown money at him, but not empathy.
In many respects, though, ‘Instructions...’ feels blunt and clunky, its speculative fiction dimension playing out like a fairly unsubtle sitcom device. Jån is really just light relief: the show never explores what or why he is; he’s there to say a series of silly things and make Max and Hari look pitiful for having given up on Nick.
In many ways, the play resembles one of those MOR middle-class comedies that the Royal Court used to do in spades, that Vicky Featherstone’s regime was supposed to be an antidote to.
That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Nor does it take away from the efforts of director Hamish Pirie, who seems to be Featherstone’s go-to guy for shows requiring a high-concept production. He and his team infuse ‘Instructions…’ with an alluring weirdness: Cai Dyfan’s set looks strangely like a funeral parlour, and Vicki Manderson put the cast through striking robotic choreography on the scene changes, adding a chic distance to the comedy. There are also some neat illusions from Paul Kieve, and tip-top work from stage manager Kate Aisling Jones in getting Vernel to constantly, abruptly pop up in the most unexpected of places.
Plus if you’re going to do a sitcom, this has the right cast for it. Bonnar and Horrocks are amusing but also genuinely poignant as Hari and Max; broader and laugh-out-loud funny are Michelle Austin and Jason Barnett as their neighbours, who are basically them only more so.
‘Instructions for Correct Assembly’ is fun, but it’s shallower than the average Royal Court show. Pirie has assembled Eccleshare’s play with care and flair, but the writing still feels a bit flatpack.