In the middle of the stage, anachronistic in the book-lined living room, is a robot. It’s a glorious thing with flashing LEDs, exposed parts, Perspex skin and a hologram for a face. Its limbs and joints whizz and whirr as it moves. And it’s one of the main characters of the show.
Sally (Helen Ryan) is losing her memory. As Alzheimer’s sets in all she has for company is a robot programmed by her late husband Raymond, and a home help “with fat arms”. She remembers how she and Raymond met, how they fell in love, and as she chats to the robot her memories are played out by their younger selves (Anna Munden and Michael Tonkin-Jones).
Ryan combines dignity and stateliness with petulance and fear. Sometimes she can enjoy her happy past and sometimes the frustration that comes from her illness takes its toll. There’s a mismatch between Munden’s precocious young Sally and Ryan’s more complex counterpart, but Tonkin-Jones captures an endearing, twitchy awkwardness in young Raymond.
Spillikin isn’t about artificial intelligence. Writer Jon Welch moves away from the clichés of imminent robot apocalypse or impending war. Instead, it’s about the extent of empathy and the tendency people have to find humanity in other people – or other things. If it’s got a face on it, we can relate. “My hand isn’t like a human hand," the robot says. Except it is, because humans have designed it like that.
Welch pits the fallibility of the human mind against the perfect recall of the robot in a sweet and sometimes moving play.