Uncanny Valley

Mar 31 2016 | By More

★★★★☆    Shiny new

Summerhall: Tue 29 – Thurs 31 March 2016
Review by Thom Dibdin

Direct and clear, Rob Drummond gets right among all the big questions in this interactive production which is part of the International Science Festival.

Drummond positions the show as a talk about how you can tell the difference between a robot and a human. He’s a hugely consummate performer, bringing his audience straight into the debate and making the challenging questions as easy as breathing.

Rob Drummond. Photo Patrick Jameson

Rob Drummond. Photo Patrick Jameson

His target audience of eight to 12 year-olds is just at the point where it is beginning to become fascinated by tricky questions about the nature of the world. Drummond knows it – and also that, at that age, the idea that the future belongs to you is shiny new and, as yet, holds no fear.

In forty years time, he says, there will be robots which are so clever that you won’t be able to tell whether their intelligence is artificial or not. And how you deal with a robot that looks and thinks just you is a question that this audience will have to deal with. Not their parents.

And before you know it, this is no longer a talk about the future, but the future itself and just as we have been helping him discuss the nature of robots, we are helping him tell the story of Ada, newly arrived at Uncanny Valley.

Ada, shy in the face of the class of children which the audience have now become, uses an artie – an artificial intelligence – to communicate with other humans. Hers is called OKAY – Outstandingly Knowledgeable Android Youth – and she coded it herself to respond as she would.


Great stuff. Except that in Uncanny Valley the Mayor has banned all arties – which  are to be consigned to the rubbish dump and crushed. And poor old Ada is suddenly fighting for the existence of OKAY.

Pamela Reid. Photo Louise Spence Photography

Pamela Reid. Photo Louise Spence Photography

Drummond narrates it all with the ease of a magician, stepping in and out of the story, conjuring ideas and revealing solutions which he brings out of the audience. He’s the teacher welcoming Ada, then he’s her new foster dad bewildered by her inability to talk to anyone.

Pamela Reid gives Ada just the right level of vulnerability – OKAY is her friend and well, that’s okay. More to the point, as she sets about re-coding OKAY so it can pass the test set it by the mayor, there’s a real buzz about what it can do. And at some point, it becomes a he, a real sentient being.

Kirsty Stuart has a lot more work to get the audience on her side as the vicious, technophobe mayor. But she manages to keep just the right amount of humanity in her performance to allow the mayor to be the butt of ridicule while still retaining a smattering of her own vulnerability. Not to mention stepping out as Ada’s foster mum.

Director Emily Reutlinger ensures that it all swings along with ease. When an extra character is called for, the audience is always there to provide it. When a tricky decision needs to be taken, they are there too, not necessarily to take it, but to understand how it could be framed and why it is tricky.

Pamela Reid and Rob Drummond. Photo: Louise Spence Photography

Pamela Reid and Rob Drummond. Photo: Louise Spence Photography

Just as Drummond makes it all seem easy, there’ great surface simplicity to Fergus Dunnet’s design – with Kate Bonney’s LX. It has a clean, future  technology feel, with moving doorways and an optical illusion pattern to the backdrop.

But it is in the representation of OKAY that all the surrounding ease and smoothness of ideas will live or die. If OKAY is not credible, then nothing else will be. And fortunately, in the continuation of the mixing of the abstract with complexity, OKAY is more than okay in all his incarnations as Ada struggles to meet her deadline.

Uncanny Valley demonstrates that if you understand the underlying form, then science and theatre are great bedfellows, just as young children and big ideas can be. But only if neither side talks down to the other. It is a perfect marriage of its producers, Borderline Theatre and Ayr Gaiety, with its commissioning partners, Imaginate and the Science Festival.

A fascinating, thought provoking production that speaks as much to grownups as it does to children.

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes.
Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL
Tuesday 29 – Thursday 31 March 2016
Daily: 2.30pm. Evening performance Weds 30: 7.30pm, Morning perf Thurs 31: 10.30am.
Tickets and details: http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk/event-details/uncanny-valley


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