It is some time in the future; a team of button-pushing workers sit in strangely shaped chairs, growing exercised by the sudden possibilities of new thought and humanity offered by a particular specimen under their control. Alan Ayckbourn's latest play begins from a disconcertingly similar premise to that of Dennis Potter's final work, Cold Lazarus – they even share a cruel-mouthed, power-dressed harridan of a head honcho. However, where the little hope that lay in Potter's vision was vested in terrorist rebels, Ayckbourn's central character – a robot "actoid" designed for assembly-line TV dramas who begins to gain an identifiable individual personality – is allowed to embody the real potential to which the play's title alludes.
Janie Dee, as Jacie, the android in question, is also considerably more attractive than the discorporate head of Albert Finney. Under Ayckbourn's direction, she engages the audience to the extent at which we laugh at her pieces of comic as if really had just been learnt for the first time. Nicholas Haverson, playing the writer who begins to notice synthetic Jacie's human possibilities, is necessarily on the wide-eyed and ineffectual side, but could perhaps do with being a smidgen less so. Keith Bartlett's hard-bitten has-been director is played in a rough Durante rumble. The play is set in an indeterminate future, far enough ahead for the crappy TV station's high-tech equipment to be antique, yet close enough to the present for Chance the director to be plainly recalling his glory days under the studio system compared to what is equally clearly intended as a satire on current "suit-led" commissioning processes. Ayckbourn sacrifices crystalline consistency to convenience on a number of occasions.
All of which might make Comic Potential seem one of his lesser plays, but this is not the case. The themes and motifs – the Pygmalion syndrome, the manner in which human personality is constructed, the competing desires for autonomy and certainty – are expertly set up, then taken a step further. Once Jacie has been taught the rudiments of comedy, including the basic notions of surprise and suspense, we can be quite sure that that custard pie has been brought on for a reason – we are ourselves given a meta-lesson in those same comic principles. Most trenchantly, once Jacie has confessed that she is nothing but the sum of her past screen "life", she implicitly posits the unreliability of her apparently growing humanness. Yet, once again, how does she differ in that respect from the rest of us?
There are, of course, a generous clutch of magnificent Ayckbourn lines and directorial touches (for instance, it takes a minute or two to realise that those barely-audible extraneous noises in the sex hotel scene are part of the sound tape). He also takes the final narrative choice – between a self-sacrifice at once noble and selfish and a sentimentally upbeat closure – as close down to the wire as he has ever done. In some ways Ayckbourn seems to have intended to give the illusion that Comic Potential is a bit of a throwaway. In fact, it is anything but.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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