Crypt – The Vaults
Reviewed – 25th February 2020
“a fine example of the creative power of theatre, reimagining existing references to make something new and resonant for today”
An infamous true crime of 1930s France is given an intelligent contemporary spin in the fascinating “Alexa, Play” another tremendous “Black Mirror” influenced offering in the VAULT Festival.
The case of Christine and Léa Papin, two sisters working as maids who were convicted of murdering their employer’s wife and daughter in Le Mans in 1933, was a sensation that has been the motivation for a number of books, songs, films and plays. The most renowned is Jean Genet’s “The Maids” which he always denied in spite of the obvious parallels.
Here, writer Ruth Connick pulls off the clever twist of one of the “maids” being a rather well-known and much-used smart speaker which may or may not have developed a mind of its own.
Connick’s thrilling first full-length text follows the structure of Genet’s 1947 play, but is never constrained by it. Familiarity with the original case or the French play allows a knowing respect rather than being a necessary requirement for audiences.
In this version Connick is first-rate as Annie, the downtrodden PA working for an unpleasant “Boss Lady” who has somehow just been cleared of major tax evasion. In the dressing room of her employer’s house (sumptuously suggested by a dressing table, fine dresses and shoes and a futuristic stand on which an Alexa rests – design by Connick again, who also co-directs) Annie and the Alexa have an intriguing relationship.
The crucial question is if the apparently manipulative technology is displaying signs of emotion and individuality as the pair appear to role play the class division that exists in the household and plot to see off the boss.
The scornful and arrogant Boss Lady – “bubble-wrapped with affluence” – is played by Laura Schuller, who also co-directs with style. She gives a chilling portrayal of the abusive character who looks down on everyone, even to the extent of bribing the court to ensure her release.
The third “performer” is Alexa. The voice sounds scarily similar to the real thing, so it may be that some extremely nifty sound design by Harvey Jones (aka as boundary-smashing dub techno musician El Choop) has adapted some genuine smart responses. The effect is eerily reminiscent of any number of fictional computers which expand their artificial intelligence to take charge, such as Kubrick’s HAL 2000.
“Alexa, Play” is a penetrating multi-faceted fringe drama, which manages to explore the shared paranoia of the put-upon, bullied workers, the cruel consequences of the class divide and a day after tomorrow nervousness about modern technology.
This is the first production from the two performers, who have worked closely together since 2014, as newly-founded theatre duo Connick & Schuller, and it holds exciting promise for the future. It is a fine example of the creative power of theatre, reimagining existing references to make something new and resonant for today.
Reviewed by David Guest