Instructions for Correct Assembly at Royal Court Theatre
It’s tempting to compare Thomas Eccleshare’s Instructions for Correct Assembly to Black Mirror, or to label it a suburban Westworld. But there’s a fundamental big-picture darkness to both of those modern sci-fi staples that is lacking in the Royal Court’s new play. In its place is a more domestic, but no less pressing, kind of grief, and acutely observed off-kilter humour, that’s closer to a George Saunders short story. But even then, that doesn’t feel fair – Eccleshare and Hamish Pirie’s stunningly realised production occupies a singular and unique space.
Starting with a production-line peak, Cai Dyfan’s ever-moving card diorama set gradually gives way to the cosy glow of a shiny IKEA home, humming under the warm electronica of Duramaney Kumara’s compositions. In this pastel near future, Hari (Mark Bonnar) and Max (Jane Horrocks) are indulging in a bit DIY, filling the new-found hole in their life with some catalogue offspring. From a pile of packing peanuts emerges Jan (Brian Vernel), a build-at-home real boy with an infinitely reprogrammable mind offering the couple a parental redo following the death of their son Nick.
Instructions wears its undoubted sadness lightly. Grief – both as impossible task and anaesthetising feeling – might be the backbone of the play, but Eccleshare and Pirie trust the empathetic instincts of their audience enough to complicate things both comedically and in terms of where one’s sympathies lie. Parenting certainly isn’t easy; but neither is being the child of a pair of fixers, with Eccleshare constantly peeling back the layers of perfection to reveal the destructive impulse that lies behind such gloss.
Repeatedly Hari and Max twist and turn the dials of Jan’s personality to reach some middle class liberal ideal, in scenes that combine fish out of water hilarity with a creeping sense of why Nick may have gone off the rails (or alternately why any deviation from this “norm” may have been a problem). Similarly, Eccleshare nails the way parents can move their children up and down a collective league table of vicarious success, and just how alienating such an environment is to the progeny involved.
While Bonnar and Horrocks perfect a forced atmosphere of plastic smiles and hidden hurt, Instructions simply wouldn’t be possible without Vernel’s virtuoso performance. He is endlessly malleable. As Jan, he is a simulacrum of what Max and Hari have lost, an unwelcome mirror, a strange presence always a few degrees off-base. But then as Nick – who Pirie tellingly often has outside the framing of the stage – that uncanniness disappears immediately, Vernel channelling the rage and pain of a boy who has made, and keeps making, mistakes; of a child who can’t find his way back to a home that always ends up driving him away.
Instructions for Correct Assembly is at Royal Court Theatre from 7th April until 19th May 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.