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Review: Perfection that is robotic in Instructions For Correct Assembly, Royal Court

Clever staging and some memorable moments but the play, like the robot at the centre of the story, lacks soul.

What if you could build your own robot child and programme it, a chance to correct past mistakes and produce the perfect off-spring?

Instructions-for-correct-assemblyThis is the premise of Thomas Eccleshare’s new play Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court.

Parents Max (Jane Horrocks) and Harry (Mark Bonnar) are surrounded by friends with over-achieving sons and daughters unfortunately, as we discover, their own son Nick (Brian Vernel) wasn't quite as perfect.

The staging utilises two conveyor belts on which props, bits of set and actors slide into view.

At first, we see the action through a window-shaped space as if it is taking place inside its own box of parts; watching Max and Harry build their new 'son' Jån (also Brian Vernel) who comes complete with Ikea style instruction booklet.

Once Jån is ‘out of the box’ the window screen lifts and we see them tinkering with him, getting him ‘just right’ for the big unveil to their friends.

In an interview with What’s On Stage (see related content below) Thomas Eccleshare says the play is about perfection and what that looks like.

The perfection as presented in the play is a world of high-flying careers, a benign world of politeness but it is also soulless and colourless.

Max and Harry themselves are quite mechanical and surface, there are too few chinks in their polite and friendly armour.

Their friends are also nice and polite, full of humble-brags and it's all a bit Stepford wives (and husbands) except that there isn't even anything sinister about it.

I'm not sure who's idea of perfection it is supposed to be which is part of the problem. Where is the love and laughter?

Be careful what you wish for doesn't apply because who would wish to live that way?

Where the play comes to life and is very funny is when Max and Harry are programming Jån, using a remote control to flip through various options for his dialogue to set an appropriate tone - they don't want any sarcasm.

It's a clever bit of writing and brilliantly performed by Brian Vernel as he switches from extremes trotting out pornographic and ultra-right wing comments with no seeming comprehension of what he is saying through to variations of 'safer' conversation, often with just a few word changes.

He also has a tendency to malfunction with random words slipping into sentences and later he attempts to correct himself with varying degrees of failure.

The finished Jån becomes a reflection of Max and Harry's ultimately unobtainable ideal. No surprises there.

By the end of the hour and forty minutes, I wasn't sure what Thomas Eccleshare was actually trying to say. Nick may have had a lot of problems and be a parent's worst nightmare but at least he had a personality and a degree of emotion.

In making the humans as colourless as the robot the play lacks heart and in making them so agreeable it lacks dramatic tension.

When Harry's friend Paul (Jason Barnett) asks him what Jån is actually for it comes too late and other than some very clever and funny moments I did wonder myself.

Instructions for Correct Assembly has clever staging and some memorable moments but the play, like the robot at the centre of the story, lacks soul. I'm giving it three stars and it's at the Royal Court until May 19.

You might also like to read:
What’s On Stage interviewed Thomas Eccleshare on his new play and what it means to be a writer.