Review: Henceforward, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
"Are you an intelligent person?" Jerome the creatively-blocked composer asks the pretty escort he is about to hire. She answers gormlessly, "It depends on the script."
Predictably, Henceforward has a very intelligent script. And like the best of Alan Ayckbourn, who directs this revival of his 1987 hit, the intelligence is applied to significant themes and suffused with sparkling wit.
Not that there is any sparkle in the set: we're in a dystopian near future where vicious 'Daughters of Darkness' control the streets and Jerome has bunkered down in his fortress-like flat with steel shutters welded to windows which have not been opened for four years.
He lives with a dysfunctional robot (Nan 300F of dubious origin) and the sound samplers and mixers on which he once aimed "to explain the very feeling of love, in abstract musical form." When his wife Corinna could no longer bear her every sound being recorded, she left with Jerome's muse -- their nine-year-old daughter Geain (pronounced Jane: "not Gaelic, just pretentious"). To win Geain back and start composing again Jerome must satisfy a visiting social worker of his "high standards of homeliness".
Enter Zoe from the escort agency. She is hyper helpful and eager to please on every front. And then she too discovers that her most intimate sounds are being recorded, sampled, and synthesised. Exit Zoe.
Jerome's solution – and Ayckbourn's brilliant theatrical device – comes in modifying Nan 300 to re-create the personality of Zoe. The ensuing vetting visit of Mervyn from social services alongside Corinna and Geain, with robotic Zoe serving afternoon tea, is a hilarious tour-de-force.
However cleverly it imagines technical invention – and Ayckbourn did passing well back in '87 -- good science fiction is all about the human condition. We discover that Mervyn is almost as 'wired' as Nan 300: "Tip him upside down and he makes ice cream." The now adolescent gender-sparring warrior Geain surprisingly finds solace at the hand of Nan Zoe. And the humourless, charmless, loveless Jerome of the first half – who cannot say what it means to be human -- is fundamentally challenged in the second.
Nan 300 is unfulfilled. She's "A machine with more capacity than jobs she was programmed to perform". We are invited to empathise with her condition: "Like a coffee grinder with no beans." But it's all about Jerome, who is forced to ask himself, what is he programmed to do? To use his creative powers to describe musically what love is? Or to experience that love himself?
When Zoe first discovers Jerome's method of composing she accuses him of being a voyeur: "No – you're an auditeur, a listening Tom." Ayckbourn and his excellent ensemble of actors turn us all into listening Toms. It's stimulating. It's very funny. And it's also darkly distressing.
By John Hargreaves