Tag Archives: Dakota Blue Richards

“anthropology” at the Hampstead Theatre

Playwright Lauren Gunderson takes an impressively calm approach to artificial intelligence. The technology is here, the question is what we do with it. So rather than examine existential threats, anthropology is a thriller – a neat one, if flawed – that has AI solving a crime.

Gunderson takes many already established ideas about AI – which means we don’t learn much that is new – but our suspicions and fears are used effectively. Like Jordan Harrison’s play, Marjorie Prime, the technology helps someone grieving: a programmer called Merril creates an algorithm based on her missing sister, Angie. What happens next is a good twist and the plot is firm.

anthropology is smart and entertaining, with nice turns of phrase and well-handled light touches. But it is also cold. Despite Merril’s mental health, the breakdown of her relationship, and her troubled mother making an appearance, she is a distant figure. Indeed, all the characters are strangely rarefied. Given a title that indicates a study of people and societies characterisation is a struggle and the quartet of people we meet too small a cross-section.

Emotion is led by the strong cast, carefully guided by director Anna Ledwich. Taking the lead as Merril, a bravura performance means MyAnna Buring impresses – she can command Georgia’s Lowe’s bare stage and isn’t overpowered by Daniel Denton’s impressive video designs. Dakota Blue Richards has the tough role of Angie, (mostly) a disembodied voice or video, and excels at both sinister hints and comic touches.

The sisters are bravely unlikeable. It’s interesting to watch how the AI programme changes – as it gets better, Angie becomes worse! Or question how much Merril forces her unhealthy ideas on those around her. But loosely sketched back stories need to be clearer. All the characters seem trapped in their trauma and there’s little sense of them existing outside the scenario of the play. The roles of mother and girlfriend suffer most – while Yolanda Kettle and Abigail Thaw do a good job – their characters are flat and it is hard to care about them.

Unless…there is a deeper irony to anthropology? AI is based on patterns and both the play, and its characters, could be said to follow models. Gunderson uses ideas from science fiction, from thrillers and even the film Casablanca. Having a sense of what comes next – how much you can predict or, maybe, what we expect from a genre – runs through the piece. If that is the idea then it is a playfully intriguing one…but maybe better as a concept than as a drama.

Until 14 October 2023


Photo by The Other Richard

“What the Butler Saw” from the Curve Leicester

While trapped in our homes due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the generosity of theatres all over the country means that we can enjoy shows from venues we might not normally visit. This production of Joe Orton’s classic 1967 madhouse comedy, from the Curve Theatre Leicester, is one of many examples of plays from places I’m afraid I’ve never been to.

A word of warning: the recording is very much for archival purposes, as the camera is static and at the back of the auditorium. It’s a long way from the broadcasts put on for cinemas by NTLive. The sound quality is poor. But, to be positive, it’s closer to your average trip to the theatre – there’s even coughing and chatting from the crowd that you can pretend to shush if you like!

What the Butler Saw is a great play. Orton’s mix of crude farce, Wildean epigrams and just a touch of horror is extraordinary – clever as well as funny. Director Nikolai Foster gives the show the speed it needs, as outrageous characters all descend into a “democratic lunacy”, while a talented cast delivers the often complex dialogue assuredly. 

Rufus Hound and Catherine Russell both give star turns as the unhappily married Dr and Mrs Prentice, who run a madhouse and should qualify as inmates. Hound starts off nicely reserved, although not missing any chance to be saucy, and escalates the action marvellously. Russell ensures her character matches her husband for malice and has a great icy edge. Dakota Blue Richards and Jack Holden acquit themselves well as a prim secretary and a blackmailing hotel bellboy who cross-dress and change identities to great effect. Stealing the show is Jasper Britton as the visiting government inspector, Dr Rance. Britton delivers Orton’s convoluted nonsense superbly, with terrific ravings and delightfully delivered crazy theories. He is, of course, the maddest of a mad bunch.

Best of all, Orton’s play still shocks. The question of how our squeamishness might have changed since it was first written is raised: Dr Prentice as predator is surely more uncomfortable, likewise the jokes about sexual assault and rape. But Orton’s queasy incest theme and satirical highlighting of all kinds of hypocrisy haven’t faded in their power at all. The “pointless and disgusting” subject matter and increasing improbabilities, handled with Orton’s fantastic energy, pose a challenge as well as plenty of laughs.

Available for the duration of the lockdown