Review: R and D, Hampstead Downstairs

“What on earth is a soul?”

As the development of artificial intelligence advances ever closer to Skynet territory, so too does the complexity of the ethical questions around it. And it is these moral tensions that Simon Vinnicombe’s new play R and D focuses on – as science creates robots seem ever more human, capable even of independent thought, where do we draw the line? Or is it already too late, is Judgement Day already written in the future history books?

R and D begins innocuously, as these things always do. Scientist David offers to cheer his widowed writer brother Lewis up by offering him a £3 million job (as you do), merely spending time with a woman called April and reporting on their relationship. Trick is, she’s one of the most sophisticated robots ever constructed and through her interactions with the emotionally compromised Lewis, the bounds of technological progress are messily, murkily exceeded.

At just 75 minutes, Vinnicombe doesn’t give himself too much space to explore the full weight of the issues raised – a subplot touches on Lewis’ relationship with his university student daughter Eva – and given TV shows like Humans and films like Ex Machina, it doesn’t always feel like the freshest angle (what if once, a female scientist designed a boy robot!). But Nadia Fall’s production is compellingly acted and intricately drawn in its extra-human connections.

Jess Murphy’s April is an intriguing prospect, balancing robotic tics with the suggestion of something unknowably deeper, but its the fraternal relationship that emerges that is just as interesting – Aden Gillett and Martin Hutson offering contrasting but equally fierce forms of intelligence. Ellie Turner’s Eva suffers from under-writing but still manages to cultivate a lovely chemistry with Gillett in Ben Stone’s bright if slightly awkward design (sightlines are difficult on the sides).

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 22nd October

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