Constant Companions: World Premiere Reviews

This page features a selection of reviews from the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Constant Companions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during summer 2023. All reviews are copyright of the respective organisation. A full list of reviews can be found on the Further Reading page.

Constant Companions – Ayckbourn’s sex robots show our need for messy humanity (The Guardian) 4 Stars
Alan Ayckbourn has fun imagining the hazards of malfunctioning android lovers and misbehaving auto-maids – but there’s a deeper message too about human desire
On one level, Alan Ayckbourn’s zesty new play is like a comic version of Humans, the Channel 4 drama series exploring the moral complications of keeping sentient machines in the house. There are robot-human love affairs and questions about robot rights. Ayckbourn even has a joke about an anti-android pressure group, one of the programme’s central strands.
Set “some time to come” – and then some decades after that – Constant Companions has fun imagining the hazards of malfunctioning sex robots, misbehaving eco-domestic auto-maids and human-like lovers who never grow old. All it takes is a tweak of an empathy algorithm and a soulless automaton becomes a sexually desirable catch – albeit one with an erratic sense of humour.
That is true for Lorraine (Alexandra Mathie), a high-flying lawyer who trades her selfish husband for JAN 60 (Richard Stacey), the office’s robot janitor, hilariously deadpan with his bird-like head movements and pre-programmed small talk.
It is equally true for Winston (Leigh Symonds), an engineer who is hoodwinked by ED (Naomi Petersen), an android who can dissemble and seduce, even if she can’t override the setting to curtsy every time she speaks the name of her owner, Mrs De Sousa (Tanya-Loretta Dee).
As these parallel stories play out, we see Ayckbourn operating on a second level. Like all good science fiction, Constant Companions is less about the future than the present and, in his jokes about machine logic and human contrariness, and behind his speculation about a robot class outliving the species that created it, Ayckbourn asks his deepest questions about human companionship and sexual desire.
Like lonely bachelor Don (Andy Cryer), we might dream of a bed-mate so amply proportioned she can’t get out of the bathroom. Like Lorraine, we might long for a partner who acquiesces to every absurd argument we make. Like Winston, in a desperately tender performance by Symonds that is closest to the play’s emotional heart, we might imagine a robot who could reignite some long lost youthful romance.
In reality, what we need, whether we realise it or not, is messy humanity; not an idealised automaton but a complex mix of failure, vulnerability and contradiction. The machines might take over, Ayckbourn seems to say, but they will never replace the things that make us love and laugh.
(Mark Fisher, The Guardian, 13 September 2023)

Can the Scribbler of Scarborough (84) reach his century? (Daily Mail) 4 stars
Can Alan Ayckbourn make it to 100? Plays that is, not years. At the rate the 84-year-old Scribbler of Scarborough is going, I wouldn't put it past him.
He's now written 89 and, given that he's been knocking them out for 64 years, by my maths he needs only another eight years to reach his century. His latest is a sci-fi comedy imagining a future where we form emotional attachments with domestic androids.
You may, of course, consider the notion of a relationship with a robot preposterous. But I know plenty of people sincerely in love with their cars — never mind their mobile phones.
The play is, therefore, very much on the money. Characters include 60-year-old lawyer Lorraine, who's divorcing her husband and falls for the sweet, hunky security bot in her office. Then there's maintenance guy Winston, who's had to turn off his housekeeper's sex drive because he can't keep up. And Winston's lonely mate Don, whose bathroom is destroyed by his own over-endowed porno model.
Perhaps most interesting is Edie (Eco-Domestic), an attractive young housemaid who has fallen in love with the eldest son of a posh family — who now want her reprogrammed.
While ostensibly ahead of its time, Constant Companions is also a little dated on social mores. In Ayckbourn's world, everyone is either single or married to a person of the opposite sex. The lawyer calls her assistant 'dear' without fear of prosecution. And the posh lady offers maintenance guy Winston a thing called a 'cheque' in payment for his work.
Even so (and despite an ending that fizzles out) it's a well thought through scenario in which a robot's breath is 'air flow from the cooling system's extractor fan', crying is 'excess ocular lubrication fluid' and your electronic lover can join you for a candlelit dinner, thanks to 'auto-simulated mastication'.
Many of us will also recognise our own relationships in these human-machine bonds. When lawyer Lorraine marries her robot totty 'JAN 60', he grows puzzled by her need to be right the whole time — 'even when she isn't, and I am'. Edie, meanwhile, who's having her circuit boards reset by Winston (Leigh Symonds), has learned to simulate romantic moves — raising intriguing questions about what happens when robots start lying.
But the genius of Ayckbourn's highly amusing comedy is that he's twigged that when we finally succeed in creating robots in our own image, they will be a seductive parody of ourselves. A threat to our vanity, long before they're a threat to our existence. Tellingly, although the acting is flesh and blood, it's the droid characters who shine. Naomi Petersen as Edie has a fascinating repertoire of flourishes which are as cute as they are cunning.
But Richard Stacey steals the show as omni-reasonable JAN 60, whose smiling face seems to waft like a nodding dog. He also sounds like an automated station announcer, while showing perfect timing with an increasingly maniacal laugh.
Although absolutely deadpan, we learn that he is an 'octopus' with his hands in bed. As Lorraine remarks of their honeymoon 'it was by far the best of the three that I've had'.

(Patrick Marmion, Daily Mail, 15 September 2023)

Constant Companions review - Ayckbourn’s 89th play enters the Technology Theatre (The Times)
Winston and his wife have given up sex because it drains her battery. Lorraine is delighted with her flab-free new husband because the sex is “tireless” and he remembers her birthday with the same precision as he remembers everything else. And the bachelor Don longs to make love to his new partner, but first he has to finish assembling her.
In his 89th play Alan Ayckbourn takes serious themes and, not for the first time, gives them an engagingly light treatment. He oHers us three softly interconnected variations on a theme of androids moving from aHable drudgery to oHering their owners intimacy. It includes some of the biggest laughs of recent Acykbourns, but if it sounds too much like a near-future sex farce, that is only really the weakest strand, as we follow the struggles of desperate Don (Andy Cryer) with his Konstant Kompanion - a saga that plays like a bad Two Ronnies routine.
Really the theme here is emotional intelligence as much as artificial intelligence. Ayckbourn is showing, again not for the first time, how much we need to connect and how bad we are at doing it. The awful second husband of the high- flying lawyer Lorraine (Alexandra Mathie) forgets her 60th: so how appealing by contrast is JAN 60 (Richard Stacey), the firm’s thoughtful new janitor? A man - well, machine - who learns fast what it is to be human.
Can that include deception? JAN risks shutdown if he lies. Yet how about Naomi Petersen as ED the robot (pronounced Edie)? Did she coerce a 17-year-old boy to love her, as his mum, Andrea (Tanya-Loretta Dee), insists? Or is she just great at empathy, as her repairer Winston (a quietly stunning performance from Leigh Symonds) discovers when she teases details from him of his first love?
Ayckbourn directs a well-acted evening but, as usual with his recent stuff, you need to go with the flow a bit. Stacey is deliciously half-human as JAN 60, but the character is too much like Data from Star Trek. Lorraine is an old-school imperious boss who ends sentences with “you hear me?”. And while Kevin Jenkins’s design makes fine use of a few splashes of colour to establish its sci-fi settings, the Lady Muck-ish Andrea still pays tradespeople by cheque. The near future bears a strong flavour of 20th-century light comedy.
Yet, crucially, Ayckbourn ties everything to a tangible sense of human loneliness. He has featured androids before, in Comic Potential (1998) and Henceforward (1987). Here in the age of AI, though, he ends with an image that suggests the machines will prosper because they can connect with each other in the way their former masters seem to find impossible.
(Dominic Cavendish, The Times, 13 September 2023)

Constant Companions (The Stage)
A confession: the thought of an 84-year-old writing a play about sex robots did not necessarily fill me with optimism. But in his 89th play, Alan Ayckbourn proves you don’t need to be a digital native to write about AI. This is a smart, funny, speculative sci-fi comedy from a relentlessly curious theatrical imagination. It’s a shame, perhaps, that he directed too – another pair of critical eyes could have ironed out the kinks that mar the pleasures the piece has to offer.
Playing out across three narrative strands, it’s set in a deftly evoked future where androids work as a servant underclass – as staff in lawyer Lorraine’s office; domestic maids for posh mum Andrea; and as a self-assembly “companion” for bachelor Don. But some bug in the robot’s empathy settings is leading them to catch human feelings: security android Jan starts seducing Lorraine with birthday presents, while Andrea’s maid Edie has won her teenage son’s heart and is soon working out how to manipulate the emotions of Winston, a technician sent to fix her.
Ayckbourn delivers laugh-out-loud lines in the miscommunications between the hyper- literal, brutally honest androids and their messy, contradictory humans. But as the robots attempt to understand love, desire, pain and yearning, the play affectingly reminds the audience what it means to be a vulnerable meat sack full of emotions. There are some achingly tender moments, especially when Edie persuades Winston to tell her about his missed chance at love.
Yet for a playwright so associated with writing clockwork theatrical forms, the play is oddly lopsided. The second half shoots Lorraine and Jan’s narrative into the future, questioning what marriage between obedient, obliging AI and a fallible, ageing human might be like; eventually, the Edie plot intersects, and there are satisfying twists in both storylines.
Don and his malfunctioning sex-bot, however, remain stuck – neither character nor situation develops, so that the strand feels superfluous, merely an over-extended cheap joke about men never reading instructions properly. And while there are fascinating, if light-touch, nods to the ethical questions a robot underclass might raise, Don never has a moment’s doubt about using a sentient sex toy – it’s all gags about extra-large breasts or the battery running down.
That’s not the only dated aspect, either. Kevin Jenkins’ design looks like a camp 1970s sci-fi – glossy white furniture; slinky metallic costumes – and some lines feel anachronistically old-fashioned already (why would anyone be paying by cheque?). Some performances are rather high – although Richard Stacey and Naomi Petersen make uncannily convincing androids, marrying glassy smoothness with occasional jerkiness and an affectless, often hilariously deadpan delivery – while Leigh Symonds is heart- breaking as Winston. As long as people write this movingly about AI – and about being human – we should be safe from ChatGPT replacing playwrights any time soon.
(Holly Williams, The Stage, 18 September 2023)

Alan Ayckbourn tackles AI in latest chilling yet compassionate play (Yorkshire Post / The Scarborough News)
Warnings about the progress in artificial intelligence development have been raging – particularly this year – with experts predicting that robots will ultimately turn on their creators – us.
Time magazine carried an article from AI experts in May. It included the Twitter message posted by Dan Hendrycks, the California-based Centre for AI Safety’s director. Paraphrased, he said there are many important and urgent risks from AI, not just the risk of extinction; for example, systemic bias, misinformation, malicious use, cyberattacks, and weaponisation. Alan Ayckbourn gets right to the heart of the matter in his 89th play Constant Companions which premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, this month.
It’s theme is 21st century, prophetic, profound and pertinent. It is set in the near future when companionship comes in Ikea-style self-assembly kits – with ‘the pleasure is yours’ next to a smiling couple written on the box as though it is sci-fi viagra. There are rigid rules governing relationships between humans and androids – marriage between them is forbidden and those who co-habit are shunned. Life is clean-lined, hi-tech and well-dressed in a brightly colour-coded way.
Andy Cryer plays the lonely bachelor Don whose attempts to put together his mail-order robot are hilarious – it would ruin the play to go into too much detail. Safe to say – just like assembling a DIY bookcase, there’s always a screw loose. Leigh Symonds is the technician Winston who is hired to ‘service’ Naomi Petersen AI maid called Edie and with whom her employer’s son has fallen in love. Tanya-Loretta Dee plays Mrs DeSantos, who naively thinks she is superior not only to Winston but her synthetic servant, too. The relationship between disillusioned Winston and Edie is poignant and yet deceptive – Winston may be the one with the sonic screwdriver but just who is pushing whose buttons?
The plot also features Lorraine – a fabulously successful lawyer of a certain age – played with snappy aplomb by Alexandra Mathie – who is attended by an efficient and ambitious secretary played by Georgia Burnell. JAN Sixty is the janitor of Lorraine’s building, an android of indeterminate age. Richard Stacey – with his jerky head movements, forced laugh and Roger Moore-like raising of on an eyebrow – is the very embodiment of AI in need of an upgrade.
The play is about more than the rise of robots – it has more layers than showstoppers week in Great British Bake Off. Among science fiction and fantasy, Ayckbourn addresses other of his favourite themes. They include battle of the sexes – including who has the last word in an argument, the power of women, the ennui of marriage, sex, love, infidelity, loneliness, ambition, dementia and mortality – the title is fiendishly clever in that regard. No matter how technologically advanced we become, human frailties, foibles and fears remain the same and there are no cures for those currently in manufacture.
As serious as those subjects are – Ayckbourn wraps them in laughter, empathy and compassion. The ultimate message though is – be afraid, be very afraid.

(Sue Wilkinson, Yorkshire Post, The Scarborough News, 13 September 2023)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication / author.