Cambridge's leading amateur theatre production company

Established 1981

Comic Potential
by Alan Ayckbourn   directed by Barry Brown

The ADC Theatre, Cambridge, July 2017

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A Review of Comic Potential
by Paul Crossley
Alan Ayckbourn relentlessly experiments with the nature of comedy drama.  In Barry Brown's timely revival of Comic Potential (1999) for Bawds at The ADC he foretells human relationships with artificial intelligence through the lens of popular low budget television.  Formulaic sitcoms are acted by android beings, 'actoids', owned by a Seattle Corporation headed by mogul Lester Trainsmith.  A mantra at Trainsmith's HQ is 'Nothing Personal.'  this stimulating production proves that most things are personal, and the future is already with us.

Glaring down with bone weary resignation over his studio-cum-laboratory, is the irascible Chandler ('Chance') an iconic film director of yesteryear: imagine Scorsese spending his final days directing Emmerdale. Chandler's nickname paints someone slumped in the 'last chance' saloon of his creative life, mourning dead comedy greats and previous deification, "I'd come on the set and it would be like God had arrived."

Wandering into this televisual scrapyard is aspiring young writer, Adam Trainsmith, the owner's nephew, who idolises Chandler and is doted on by Regional Director, Carla Pepperbloom (depicted with cougar-like relish by Mandi Cattell.)  Adam the newcomer intuits that one young actoid in the company JC F3133 or Jacie Triplethree is not another 'tumble dryer' but has spontaneity, humour and can improvise beyond her stylised programming.  We explore comedy theory, witness Jacie's unscripted bedside double-take (deliciously executed) and her impromptu custard pie for the predatory Carla!

Despite warnings, Adam allows affection to flare as the couple bond over his new script; one that promotes Jacie's talents, and reignites Chance's creative appetite.  The plan backfires, and faced with Jacie's threatened destruction the two escape to a hotel achieving hilarious - and tortuous - amorous variations of heterosexual coupledom in the hotel's boutique, under the candlelit dinner table "It's our anniversary" and naturally, the bedroom!  The cast mined these exchanges with aplomb in true romantic comedy style. Our laughter faded quickly, however, when Jacie cornered Adam over their future relationship. 'I'm a machine ... Yes, I can play your Jacie ... But I can never be your Jacie.'  And equally tellingly, 'This is not a programme. This is me talking Adam ...'

The strength of Barry Brown's thought provoking production was to nail the play's contemporary relevance with rounded contributions from the whole ensemble. Setting and performances were satisfyingly integrated to develop the key issues. What relationship can we have with these creations? Are they slaves or should they have rights? How free can they be? Who has power over their destruction? What if you fall in love with them?  This Bawds treatment effectively illuminated the darker streams in Ackbourn's drama. This was theatre that made you laugh and think.
There was vivid and finely judged playing from Alex Ciupka as Jacie evincing sheer delight in her potential but an unfolding awareness of her hazardous state as a perceptive alien in a human world.  Colin Lawrence as Chance was the embodiment of the embittered auteur draining hope from the bottom of a glass.  Alex Baines convinced in a tricky role as the sensitive Adam, traversing feelings he cannot fully grasp. Crisply sparring with Chance were the technical crew of Sarah Middle (Prim Spring) and Helen Holgate (Trudi Floote) as a cynical duo whose waking nightmare is a return to children's television.

As the play progressed, differences between humans and actoids receded as when Prim deputised for Jacie's sit-com nurse. Chance, his mutinous crew and even the rigid Trainsmith (captured with mechanical inscrutability by Nick Warburton) - grow to value Jacie in unpredicted ways. It is Lester who makes the calculated offer that decides the play's tantalising outcome for Jacie. Melted down or promoted?

Traditionally, human fears were over dominance by intelligent machines, but what if our existence is inextricably bound together with theirs? This Bawds production imaginatively engaged us with that possibility, that hope and those perplexities through the medium of comedy. But how comic is that final sight of Jacie?  She presides over the studio with an unequivocal 'All right people let's go to work. Action!' I was left feeling relief - and on reflection - just a little foreboding.