Marjorie Prime review – gently uncanny sci-fi shows us how to love an AI

Jordan Harrison’s gently uncanny play imagines a future solution for a person in mourning: the recreation of someone you love as an artificial intelligence.

In the early stages of dementia, Marjorie (a shining Anne Reid) finds comfort in Walter Prime, an AI version of her dead husband. Richard Fleeshman offers a pristine performance as Walter, whom Marjorie has chosen to have re-created as his handsome, 30-year-old self. There is a delightfully unearthly edge to Fleeshman’s gait and smile, but as Walter reminds Marjorie of joyful days they spent together, there is also genuine warmth between them. She knows he’s not real but he offers her time, attention and memories in ways that the other people around her struggle to.

Marjorie lives with her stern daughter Tess (Nancy Carroll) and far friendlier son-in-law Jon (an affable Tony Jayawardena), and we see how Tess struggles to cope with the idea that a clever piece of tech might be able to communicate with her mother better than she can. But for the most part, the struggles with the AIs are rarely surprising; the ethical and emotional issues of at-home machine learning are so plainly laid out in the dialogue that the play struggles to dig very deep.

A delight … Reid, with Nancy Carroll as Tess. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

The writing is far more delicate in the moments where the AI can truly serve the living, as when Walter offers Marjorie a happy memory she’d long since forgotten. Later, as the play flips on its head and Marjorie takes the role of Prime, we see how she provides Tess the time and space to say what she had never managed to in life. Reid’s Prime may be less convincingly robotic than the others, but as the real, breathing Marjorie, she is a delight; charming and cutting and wonderfully pleased with herself as she asks whether the doctor she was flirting with was flirting back.

Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, this is no Black Mirror. The play, originally written in 2014, is not created to warn against the perils of AI. Instead it calmly considers what we might gain from using technology to fill a gaping loss. Perhaps its greatest lesson is that we should do our best to communicate better with the people we care about today, while we still have the chance to do so.

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Kate Wyver