Review: Girl in the Machine – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

First published in The Times, Friday April 7 2017

Three Stars

How often do we reach for technology – unlock our phones or fire up our laptops – to escape the daily grind or overcome the transient blues? In Stef Smith’s new play, Polly (Rosalind Sydney) and Owen (Michael Dylan) are that enviable couple who appear to have it all: youth, energy, career success and a genuine, burgeoning love. Still, there is something almost inevitable about Polly’s tragic slide into dependency on a seductive new piece of hardware.

While Smith’s play is, in outline, the latest cautionary tale about technology gone mad, it also convinces as a portrait of slow-burning addiction. When Owen shows Polly the innocuous-looking headset he has liberated from the hospital he works in, where it is used in palliative care, he pitches it as a taster for some new and inviting drug. (“It’s like the dealer giving the first gram out for free.”) Before long, Owen is in despair at the amount of time Polly is spending immersed in the heightened sensations offered by her new device.

Michael Dylan (Owen) image Mihaela Bodlovic

Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Orla O’Loughlin’s well-paced production repeatedly takes us within the narcotic haze of Polly’s second life, which so contrasts with the mechanics of her profession. A drawback here is the lack of suspense as to whether Polly will continue to indulge in this bracing experience or settle for reality once she has realised the consequences of plugging in. The world the couple inhabits, as rendered by Neil Warmington, the designer, and Sergey Jakovsky, the lighting designer, is the last word in bland good taste, airless and badly in need of some colour or wonder. To hammer the point home, the set comes wrapped in an anonymous container, like a packing crate.

Rosalind Sydney (Polly) image Mihaela Bodlovic

Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Nonetheless, Smith’s script is poignant about the ways in which we neglect what is right in front of our eyes in favour of that which is mediated or enhanced. In one particularly effective scene, the playwright shows her lovers exploring each other’s bodies, inch by defenceless inch, only for the memory of their erotic night to be obliterated by a drinking binge. Sydney and Dylan respond to the playwright’s careful delineation of the wonders and limitations of love with tender and moving performances.



Box office: 0131 228 1404, to April 22

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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