Harry (Mark Bonnar) and Max (Jane Horrocks) have tried parenthood once before. It didn’t go very well – their son Nick has left their lives. Now, they have a chance to start over with Jån, a flat-pack built-it-yourself son by next-day delivery – a ‘high-quality product’ programmed to their needs.
This is the premise of Thomas Eccleshare’s new play, Instructions for Correct Assembly, which is playing at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Alongside Bonnar and Horrocks, it stars Brian Vernel as both sons, Michele Austin and Jason Barnett as smug couple Laurie and Paul, whom Harry and Max have over for dinner sometimes, and Shaniqua Okwok in her professional stage debut as their Oxford-bound, rather smothered perfect daughter Amy.
There is a lot going on in this play. The elaborate design is striking in its conveyor-belt like set changes, the frequent use of a screen shielding the stage save for a window-like cut-out and its increasing abstraction (in these aspects, reminiscent both of the Lyric Hammersmith production of The Seagull in which Vernel played Konstantin and the Royal Court production of Alistair McDowall’s X starring Jessice Raine). The actors often join in the set changes, using jerking, hopping movements, tableaus and other physical theatre devices to enact machinery-inspired, slightly superfluous-feeling transitions between scenes. Lighting is made frequent and effective use of, the action is for the most part subtly underscored by quiet background music and there are quite a lot of props. Unfortunately, the effort that has obviously been put into all these aspects of the production leaves the performances and writing looking a bit pale. Though the energy picks up towards the end, conversation seems stilted and unnatural throughout the beginning – this may, of course, be intentional. There is definitely humour in the writing, but one feels that the audience is not nearly as engaged with the characters when not laughing. Vernel gives the standout performance as Jån, able to effortlessly ‘reset’ his personality as the machine-son, and Nick, perfectly pulling off the moody rogue as ever. There are some key moments in the rest of the performances that move or disturb (or sometimes both), such as when Harry and Max chat happily while doing their weekly ‘servicing’ of Jån’s parts, or when they hold each other in tears over the loss of Nick, but generally one feels the focus has been put on how the production looks.
A family drama clearly of the Black Mirror age, Instructions for Correct Assembly is a play that seems suffers from a case of style over substance – ideas more interesting than their execution. However, those ideas are enough to sustain the straight-through run of almost two hours and provide a thought-provoking evening of both laughs and inevitable doom.
Instructions for Correct Assembly is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 19th May 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.