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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Instructions For Correct Assembly
Royal Court Theatre  Spring 2018

Thomas Eccleshare had a strong idea for a play but hasn't quite written the play itself. And director Hamish Pirie sometimes seems to disagree with his author over what the play is about. The result is more respect-worthy for its intention than its accomplishment. 

We meet Max (Jane Horrocks) and Hari (Mark Bonnar), a very middle class couple with a penchant for do-it-yourself projects. Having succeeded with shelves and a bed, they now set out to build a flat pack some-assembly-required person, a realistic life-size young man named Jan (Brian Vernel). 

We gradually realize that Jan is to be a replacement for their biological son Nick (also Vernel), who was something of a disappointment by their standards, dropping out of school, failing in business, becoming an addict and dying. 

But will Son 2.0 prove any more successful than the first version? 

The play is – or wants to be – about the impulse to improve on messy humanity by creating a perfect embodiment of the clean and simple thing you might want life to be, and (minor spoiler alert) about the impossibility of that dream. But the playwright has trouble keeping his eye on that ball. 

There are a couple of really self-contained comic scenes as the couple frantically reach for the up or down button on the remote control when Jan has the wrong accent or says something politically incorrect or not wholly in keeping with their political/social opinions. 

And, with the same actor playing Nick in the flashbacks and Jan in the present, there is a chilling scene in which we're not sure which one we're watching. 

A neighbour family are there to represent an unintended affront to Max and Hari, their daughter successfully at Oxford and so on, but they feel shoehorned into the play, as much for the comedy of Jan's awkwardness around them as anything else. 

Meanwhile, if the play is about trying to replace messy humanity with perfect machines, director Pirie seems to think the opposite. 

The world of the humans is presented onstage as a mechanical one, scene changes effected by sliding sets and props in and out on a conveyor belt, while the actors themselves spend the scene-change time shuffling about like wind-up toys. 

Someone watching this play without understanding English might guess that it was about robots trying to create a more human-like model, rather than humans trying to improve on messy humanity. 

In this context none of the actors are given much opportunity to develop any depth or reality, though Brian Vernel, playing two one-dimensional characters, is at least one dimension up on everyone else.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Instructions For Correct Assembly - Royal Court Theatre 2018  
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