Updated: Apr 30
Royal Exchange Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
April 23-May 14, 2022; 2hrs 45mins
Tim Foley’s Bruntwood Judges’ Award-winning play for six actors is a game of two halves.
In the first is the rather cool idea of nuns getting to grips with new technology and AI. Though set in a kind of imprecise future, it’s recognisably of our time, too, as they have smartphones, a laptop and a modest home projector. The idea is magnified to the point where they meet a life-size, humanoid, fully interactive robot called Mary.
It’s all good fun, and mines the possibilities of comedy from the concept of a machine taking on the religious lifestyle. Mary can assimilate data and behaviours at a staggering rate, and soon makes herself the most knowledgeable and hardest-working member of a convent that’s fallen on hard times. Its human membership is down to five (acting Mother Superior, one grumpy but realistic older sister, one desperately conscientious one, one young and naive postulant, and another we never see because she’s bedridden), and they no longer have a school to give them any purpose. What future is there?
The plot, at this stage, is mainly a comedy about small-scale jealousies and rivalry, centred on the issue of succession to the Superior’s job and a plan to finance a trip to Ecuador, where their sister house has created a successful shrine to the Blessed Virgin, based on a vision vouchsafed to their (supposedly) saintly founder.
But Mary has been presented to them by an outside body with a financial deal attached, and a picture is suggested of a Dystopian society outside their walls, where robot “reapers” are at work and the human population – “Luddites” – is in angry and threatening revolt.
The second part has ambitions to much more than mere comedy. If a human can lose faith, can a robot gain it? Can a walking, talking piece of AI have a spiritual experience? What if God could inhabit one and fulfil his purposes through her (it)? It sounds airy-fairy if you put it like that, and the comic side of the story is still there, but Foley is pushing at boundaries and aiming at something deeper.
It doesn’t always work and the production, by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart (design by Charlotte Espiner), isn’t quite equal to its ultimate demands, with an odd and quite literal Deus ex machina near the end. But you can enjoy it on many levels, and the evocation of the interior of a religious house, its chapel and its worship by deft strokes of set design, sound and music (Anna Clock), is nicely done.
Most powerful of all are the individual performances. Suzette Llwellyn as the desperately conscientious sister, Olwen May as the honest and grumpy one, and Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as the ditzy, good-hearted postulant are all starting from stereotypes of theatrical (or televisual) nuns, but make them warm and sympathetic as well as funny. Jo Mousley is outstanding as the would-be Superior, torn in many directions at once, and Yandass Ndlovu times her interventions well as the mysterious Child who appears like a revelation.
Best of all is Breffni Holohan as Mary the robot. Being a robot that’s being a human can’t be easy, but is skilfully and cleverly done by her, with an Irish voice quality coming through eventually to add an extra touch of piquancy to this multi-layered mystery.
More info and tickets here