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Instructions for Correct Assembly review at Royal Court, London – ‘cleverly constructed but bloodless’

Mark Bonnar, Brian Vernel and Jane Horrocks in Instructions for Correct Assembly at London's Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson Mark Bonnar, Brian Vernel and Jane Horrocks in Instructions for Correct Assembly at London's Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson
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“Hello!” chirps Max and Harry’s son, as they remove him from his packaging and boot him up for the first time – just like a shiny new Apple device.

He is a robot called Jan – a replacement for Nick, their human child who came into the world by the messier, more conventional route. Nick was a disappointment and things ended badly. Jan is going to be perfect.

Thomas Eccleshare’s dystopian drama is cleverly constructed from promising components. It asks shrewd, uncomfortable questions about parenthood, explores the implications of our growing reliance on technology, and slyly suggests that, like good little automatons, we all live our lives more mechanically than we like to think: doing what’s expected of us, obediently staying in our self-constructed social boxes until we’re coffined and turned into landfill.

The idea of robot as human surrogate, and the emotional and moral confusion that arises, is a well-worn sci-fi trope, familiar from everything from Kubrick/Spielberg’s Pinocchio-ish AI (and the 1969 story that inspired it) to Channel 4’s Humans. There are precedents onstage too, notably Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward, while Caryl Churchill’s cloning drama A Number touches on some similar themes.

But, if the plot doesn’t feel especially fresh, the play’s astringent wit and wry, skewed perspective are enormously diverting, and excellently served by Hamish Pirie’s ingenious production. More problematic is the absence of heart: it’s fun to watch, but it’s all bloodless cunning contrivance.

What eye-popping skill there is in that contrivance, though. Cai Dyfan’s illuminated set invites us to peep behind the curtains of a middle-class home (another confining box) through an oblong aperture. Scenes and furniture glide on and off as if we’re swiping a touch-screen. Paul Kieve’s illusions make the assembly of Jan (Brian Vernel) – a cheap model, he arrives in kit-form – an uncannily hilarious spectacle, with Max (Jane Horrocks) and Harry (Mark Bonnar) applying screwdrivers to body parts with the cack-handed zeal of weekend DIY enthusiasts.

In flashbacks, we see the fatal decline of Nick (Vernel again), who became an addict – and while Max and Harry’s love and grief for their dead son is real, their motives begin to seem impure. Did they, as parents, malfunction, or was it Nick? Did part of them want their son to be a source of affirmation, a mini-me, a trophy child?

It certainly stings when their smug neighbours (Michele Austin and Jason Barnett) boast about the stellar achievements of their daughter (Shaniqua Okwok), a young woman ruthlessly programmed by her parents for success.

The play powers down before it actually finishes. Otherwise, it’s slickly entertaining, and if it leaves you craving more substance and humanity, there’s absolutely nothing artificial about its intelligence.

Goats director Hamish Pirie: ‘I’m drawn to plays that are messy, odd and weird’

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Entertaining and ingeniously staged dystopian drama is cleverly fabricated but bloodless