Theatre review: Breakfast Plays – Tech Will Tear Us Apart (?)

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They’re simple, script-in-hand readings with just one day’s rehearsal.

Star rating: ****

Venue: Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

Yet the Traverse Breakfast Plays – with coffee and bacon roll thrown in – often offer some of the most exciting new writing on the Fringe. This year, the season comes with an extra stamp of quality, since the Traverse has commissioned four plays from its associate writers, on the single theme of new technology, and whether it will “tear us apart” not just from each other, but from ourselves.

The cycle begins slightly uneasily, with How To Ruin Someone’s Life From The Comfort Of Your Own Beanbag, a monologue co-written by playwright Tim Price and convicted hacker Darren Davidson. The format is a TED talk by a young ex-hacker who presents himself as having moved on from this criminal phase of his life – but his moral stance crumbles as fast as his hacked PowerPoint presentation, suggesting that anonymous internet evil is addictive, and as difficult to kick as any drug.

Morna Pearson’s Binheid is, mostly, a terrific monologue for Jean, a woman in a small town in north-east Scotland who is chucked out of the pub to find a man in the alley outside with his head stuck in a wheelie bin. The theatrical device can be a shade awkward; there’s something slightly implausible about the length of the man’s inarticulate silence, while Jean speculates entertainingly about his problem, and life in general.

Given a terrific central performance from Molly Innes, though, Pearson’s play displays impressive style and panache throughout; and when the man in the bin (Keith Macpherson) finally explains his situation, their conversation quickly matures into a moving meditation on a world where so many people feel like cogs in a machine that will soon replace them entirely.

Rob Drummond’s The Conversation, by contrast, is a perfectly-balanced exchange between a late-night drunk called Robert, superbly played by Keith Fleming, and a brilliant Gemma McElhinney as a chatbot (online robot) with whom he falls into conversation. Like the relationships between human and artificial intelligence envisaged in Drummond’s recent award-winning children’s show Uncanny Valley, The Conversation brilliantly explores the potential and limits of this new kind of interaction, as the chatbot perfectly imitates human chat – then suddenly lapses into a fascinating, fragmented computer-speak.

Drummond describes this show as being co-authored by himself and a chatbot, which must be a Fringe first; but my guess is that the humour and humanity of this perfectly shaped short dialogue are still almost entirely his.

And the season ends with Stef Smith’s brilliant and harrowing The Girl In The Machine, in which a young professional couple are trapped in a global crisis, as her high-powered legal job involving cutting-edge computer apps goes haywire, and young people start to download an app that ends their physical lives, but claims to keep their consciousness alive on the internet.

This show nudges more ambitiously at the limits of the 40-minute format than the others; but it features two fine and absolutely memorable performances from Martin McCormick and Kirsty Stuart – he as the man who still wants to live in the body, she as the woman who longs increasingly, and whatever the risks, to move on.

Until 28 August. Today 9am.

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