Theatre review: Girl in the Machine/Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery

'Life isn't a question that needs to be answered,' argues Owen (Michael Dylan), in Stef Smith's tense, engaging two-hander, Girl in the Machine, one of several major theatre productions presented as part of this year's Edinburgh International Science Festival. But, for his partner, Polly (Rosalind Sydney), that's exactly what life is. The problem is she can't wind down after work, and the solution is Black Box, a new internet-enabled headset which promises the ultimate relaxation.

As Polly and Owen, Rosalind Sydney and Michael Dylan must make hard life decisions.
As Polly and Owen, Rosalind Sydney and Michael Dylan must make hard life decisions.

Traverse Theatre ****

Edinburgh Zoo ***

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But soon Polly is a Black Box addict and her loving relationship with Owen is under threat. Then, it emerges that Black Box is able to do far more than just relax people. As society begins to collapse around them, Owen and Polly must decide whether the answer to the problem of life lies in humanity or in technology.

Slapstick and eccentricity are the planks of the Discovery

Orla O’Loughlin’s production (she also directed Smith’s award-winning play Swallow), moves at an unrelenting pace. Neil Warmington’s shipping container-like set exposes Owen and Polly’s world on both sides, while movement within the confined space, choreographed by Errol White and Davina Givan, ramps up the tension further. And for all the darkness within, the play manages to covey the sense of a still more frightening world beyond.

The sci-fi aspect of the play is not entirely believable, particularly in the sudden escalation towards societal collapse at the hands of a shadowy technology, but the drama works because the crisis in Owen and Polly’s relationship is not primarily technological, it’s the stuff of being human: she works too hard, he wants a family. While our humanity is the thing that tears us apart, this thoughtful play suggests it is also the one thing capable of putting us back together.

If Girl in the Machine takes us into an unsettling world-of-the-near-future, family show Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery, a co-production by site-specific company Grid Iron, learning disabilities theatre company Lung Ha, RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and the Lyceum Theatre, harks back to a cosy, if eccentric, vision of the past. Beginning in the chimpanzee house and promenading through the zoo, it builds up to the moment when cryptozoologist Dr Vivien Stirlingshire prepares to reveal a mysterious animal she has discovered, while her jealous brother Henry, the zoo manager, plots to sabotage her achievement.

Writer Morna Pearson and directors Joe Douglas and Lung Ha’s Maria Oller rise to the considerable challenge of a large mixed-ability cast and a sprawling location. The actors work hard to maintain the heightened mood of slapstick comedy, there are vignettes of delicious eccentricity alongside the main action and a poignant moment when we are all press-ganged to attend the leaving party for Old Billy (John Edgar) who has worked at the zoo for so long no one seems to remember him. But there is a sense that too little plot is stretched too far, and with few animals visible on a cold April evening, the zoo environment doesn’t add to the experience as much as it should. The pantomime pitch of the acting means it’s hard to bring out the more subtle emotions, and when the poo joke finally comes, we realise we were expecting it all along.

Slapstick and eccentricity are the planks of the Discovery


Girl in the Machine, until 22 April;

Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery, until 9 April