'Marjorie Prime' review — an eerie look at AI's future potential

Read our four-star review of the Pulitzer-winning play starring Anne Reid at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Get Marjorie Prime tickets on London Theatre.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The Menier Chocolate Factory is on something of an American roll these days. Hot on the heels of their transfer to London of solo performer Alex Edelman’s Off-Broadway hit Just for Us, along comes a second Off-Broadway success: Jordan Harrison’s futuristic Marjorie Prime, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. A film version, starring Lois Smith and Jon Hamm, was released in 2017.

I saw the play in New York, as well as the film, and can report that the director Dominic Dromgoole’s current iteration constitutes the eeriest yet. To be fair, that may have to do not only with the assured minimalism on view, but with a world that seems to have caught up with, or possibly even overtaken, the discomfiting scenario proposed by the play.

We begin in the designer Jonathan Fensom’s wide, wood-panelled set. The view beyond is of a seemingly limitless ocean periodically obscured by the lowering of blinds that seem to mark out various movements in the emotionally discordant chamber music of this four-person play: the show runs a transfixing 75 minutes, no break.

Look properly at the fixed gaze of Richard Fleeshman’s excellently played Walter, and something seems deliberately to be off. Indeed, it isn’t long into his conversation with the superlative Anne Reid, inheriting Smith’s stage and screen role as the Marjorie of the title, before we realise that he is a youthful, strapping AI version of Marjorie’s late husband. In the language of the play, he’s a “prime”.

Marjorie was born in 1977, but is now 85 — which locates the action in 2062. The flesh-and-blood Walter died decades ago, but exists holographically anew to support an increasingly infirm widow, whose memory is as enfeebled as her bladder control. Walter, in turn, only knows what he is told, which rather limits his conversation if not, in Fleeshman’s take on the role, his confidence.

It’s giving little away to reveal that the dead don’t just walk amongst the living in Harrison’s play but come to displace them (or should I say us) in an android-filled version of what lies ahead that could well be the present-day reality.

Harrison’s play chronicles the cross-over of its quartet — well, three of them anyway — from one realm to another, accompanied by markedly still moments that allow us to absorb the disturbing scenario before us. Dromgoole, to his credit, makes every silence count.

So, too, does a terrific cast in which characters rage against the dying of the light only to find a shivery peace of sorts in the fascinatingly open-ended final scene. Those wanting a drama that ties things up in a neat bow will encounter, instead, a play that traffics in the elliptical and that owes more to Caryl Churchill and even, dare one say, Sartre than to the navel-gazing that often sets American drama apart.

You’re aware, for instance, of memories tearing at the living that don’t matter to these characters’ AI selves, who possess no back story or awareness beyond what they have been programmed to know. Reid skilfully communicates a dreamy, musically-minded widow in the process of outliving her own body and beset with a tearful daughter, Tess (Nancy Carroll, as emotionally translucent as ever), who at one point remarks “science fiction is here” – and she’s not kidding.

Tess has three children and a college sweetheart (a likeable Tony Jayawardena) for a husband. But no degree of family can deny the feeling, as the husband Jon puts it, that living may well just be “a distraction from death”, a possibility contained within the prevailing hum of David Gregory’s cunning sound design: “the white noise” referenced in the text given aural due.

Some may find the play, or this production of it, too clinical, notwithstanding snatches of Vivaldi at his most plaintive or nods in the direction of Beyoncé and Julia Roberts to leaven the mood. In fact, I was reminded of the comparably brooding work of the English writer Robert Holman, a defining collaborator of Dromgoole, as Harrison’s play snaps ever more bleakly into focus.

I mean it as a compliment to Marjorie Prime to point out that the questions it poses change dramatically along the way. You start by asking how it might be possible to re-boot life, only to realise that the play’s fuller engagement is with the unnerving half-smiles that signal the play’s acquaintanceship with the unknowable landscape that lies beyond death.

Marjorie Prime is at the Menier Chocolate Factory through 6 May. Book Marjorie Prime tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Richard Fleeshman and Anne Reid (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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