Venue: Pleasance Dome
Somewhat surprisingly for a show which boasts an impressive piece of technology, Spillikin: A Love Story is a very much a play about humans – the way they form emotional attachments and the way they process memories. The play focuses on Alzheimer’s sufferer Sally (Helen Ryan) as she reminisces about her early relationship with husband Raymond, who builds a robot to keep her company after he dies. Spillikin: A Love Story could have easily been written as an overly moralistic piece about the dangers of humans developing unhealthy dependencies on technology. However, the RoboThespian (as christened by its creators, Engineered Arts) is used sparingly and is never relied on as the show’s only way of impressing the audience.
Ryan gives a faultless performance as the older Sally and her interactions with the RoboThespian – affectionately named Spillikin – feel natural. The show’s technology is integrated seamlessly into the play, with projections also being used effectively. The stage’s design demonstrates an impressive attention to detail. Mini-model robots stand on the shelves between the books and a couple of the files are marked ‘NME’, a thoughtful nod to Sally’s journalism career.
Anna Munden and Michael Tonkin-Jones provide plenty of laughs as the younger Sally and Raymond, with Tonkin-Jones giving a particularly strong performance. If watching a socially awkward geek and a rebellious pretty girl fall in love feels familiar, Munden and Tonkin-Jones play the fictional romance trope with more sincerity than most so that you really care about the progression of their relationship. The pair share a sweet chemistry and it’s a joy to watch them on stage as their characters’ relationship unfolds.
The way Sally and Raymond’s story is told isn’t exactly new either. However, having Munden, Tonkin-Jones and Ryan on stage at the same time does emphasise the tragic nature of Sally’s mental deterioration and the impact of Raymond’s absence. Watching the younger Sally and Raymond grow more hopeful as the play progresses when you know what the future holds for them is sure to bring you to tears. Ryan does a fantastic job of retaining the feisty spark that Munden possesses as the younger Sally, making it believable that the two actors are playing the same character at different points in time.
The show’s greatest strength is that it has enough confidence in the audience’s intelligence to avoid spelling things out too explicitly. The problems attached to Spillikin’s existence are acknowledged but never forced on the audience. There’s no clumsily handled monologues or forced lines about why he’s a threat to society or why Raymond was wrong to build him. Raymond’s medical condition is handled with sensitivity but not sentimentality and a predictable emotional climax during which Sally might have had a breakdown after remembering the truth about Raymond’s whereabouts, is thankfully avoided. The most poignant moment in Spillikin: A Love Story is ironically also its happiest moment as the play’s two storylines both reach their conclusion.
Spillikin: A Love Story is a beautifully constructed play performed by an outstanding cast. Writer Jon Welch demonstrates a rare understanding of the complexity of human nature while the RoboThespian never feels gimmicky. It’s almost impossible to fault Spillikin: A Love Story – Pipeline Theatre are definitely a company to keep an eye on in the future.