Review: anthropology, Hampstead Theatre

A powerful lead performance from MyAnna Buring and an intriguing premise enliven anthropology at Hampstead Theatre

“You’re basically a chatbot…”

AI is one of those hot-button topics that can quickly snowball into mammoth what-if scenarios (cf Skynet…) and so you’d imagine it is fertile ground for playwrights to explore. Taking up the mantle right now is US writer Lauren Gunderson with anthropology at Hampstead Theatre (her adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife: The Musical opens in the West End next month, marking a fertile time for her here).

We open with sisters Merril and Angie having a conversation online, Merril sat cross-legged onstage talking into her laptop with Angie’s voice ringing out in reply. But we soon discover that all is not what it seems. Angie went missing on her way home from college a year ago and being one of Silicon Valley’s leading software engineers, Merril has used all of Angie’s text messages, personal videos, social media content and likes, all the data she could find, to build an AI version of her sister. And that is who she is communicating with.

It’s an opening which intrigues from the start and through the nuance of MyAnna Buring’s powerful performance as Merril, delivers a real emotional grip. She’s clearly still processing so much grief and this has coloured any ethical considerations around her actions so when the level of sophistication advances to the point where the virtual Angie suggests that she can solve the case of IRL Angie’s disappearance, then it becomes increasingly less clear who is manipulating who – the shifts in Dakota Blue Richard’s delivery imperceptibly becoming more chilling.

This unpredictable relationship feels like a real underpinning for the play but Gunderson ends up taking it in different directions, and not always as successfully. Revisiting Merril’s relationships with her ex and mother doesn’t ring as viscerally true despite good work from Yolanda Kettle and Abigail Thaw respectively and a late diversion into thriller mode feels oddly inconsequential, even with the weight of revelation it exposes. These strands feel less unique than the wrestling with the ethical and emotional impact of AI’s growing role in humanity.

Anna Ledwich’s production veers a little too close to static at times, the sterility of Georgia Lowe’s set design at its errie best early on but less able to work with the later attempts to drum up narrative propulsion. The stark flashes of James Whiteside’s lighting design are inspired though and Buring’s work is so good that you can’t help with Gunderson had kept the focus of her play more tightly on Merril.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Photos: The Other Richard
anthropology is booking at Hampstead Theatre until 14th October

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