Molly Naylor leads a charming ramble through her thoughts on love, getting it together and Tilda Swinton in the small but perfectly formed Burton Taylor Studio, part of the Oxford Playhouse. Aided and accompanied by musical collaborators The Middle Ones, the trio use music as dramatic punctuation throughout the piece.
My Robot Heart is a theatrical experiment by Naylor, an amalgam of theatre, comedy and music, developed whilst searching for certainty and scientific precision in the eternally fickle, febrile field of love. She narrates the journeys of three characters from the same family, pre-teen Harry, bride-to-be Eliza, and her absent father, Jack, invoking their presence with icons: a battered backpack, a wilted veil, a depleted bottle of whiskey. Each of the characters has a relationship in which they struggle to be honest, to follow what Naylor argues is the “programming” inherent in all of us, and to love earnestly and without second-guessing. Their often flawed attempts to do so are what ties these three generations together, since their stories largely do not intersect; the impending wedding is the only real thing which links the trio. Thematically, however, the stories complement each other well. Each examines a different kind of relationship and paints remarkably rich images with minimal brush-strokes.
Eliza is front and centre throughout. Eliza is an extreme sports enthusiast and former manic pixie dream girl who learned everything she knows about emotions from pop music and cinema. One is left wondering what her practical, aggressively reasonable fiancé Mark was ever doing with a stroppy, deluded woman-child willing to argue at great length for the inclusion of Karma Chameleon on a wedding playlist. To no-one’s surprise, Eliza does a runner with the wedding weeks away, seeking sanctuary with her ex-bohemian brother Daniel, now firmly ensconced in the domestic contentment she both desires and rebels against. Equal parts coached and chivvied by Daniel and the movie Rear Window, Eliza hares off on another dramatic, cinematic gesture, while the universe punishes her for her failure to learn her lessons. Eliza is perhaps the character most prone to pace-slaying navel-gazing in what is otherwise a very lean and punchy show, though one cannot help but root for her, a Bridget Jones for the Twitter generation.
If Eliza is the star of the show, then Jack is the heart. Trying far too late to make amends for a lifetime of music, debauchery and not enough parenting, his mission is to write a suitable wedding speech, as father of the bride. Throughout his attempts he pushes to the back of his mind his impending expiration from an unspecified terminal illness, which nonetheless dominates his segments as the elephant in the room. Naylor confers an odd sort of vulnerability upon Jack, and his awkward waltz of coy e-mail correspondence with good Samaritan Maria is one of the most endearing segments of the play.
Harry, an 11-year-old boy at a new school, has the simplest arc, and also the shortest. His story is a tale of doing the right thing, or the socially acceptable thing: siding with the newly fatherless nerd Josh, or chief bully Alfie. Naylor shines here, dynamic and vibrant, to the extent that it is a disappointment when Harry’s role in the narrative ends before the second half. Trimmed late in development, perhaps, or cut for time?
The characters’ stories are interposed with Naylor’s apt and insightful musings about love and relationships in the twenty-first century. Many questions are raised, although she seems largely content to let her characters’ discoveries speak for themselves. The most common recurring element, the apocryphal tale of Kenji the robot programmed to love, serves to illustrate Naylor’s main conclusion: that love is by nature wild, irrational, unpredictable and utterly indispensable. Intense robo-hugging is only one of the myriad outcomes that may occur. One which, it is to be hoped, most of us will never experience.
My Robot Heart is a sweet, silly, bold production, marred very slightly by technical issues with sound levels, but otherwise enriched by The Middle Ones’s folky and fun contributions. The piece is endowed with great life and character by practised show-woman Molly Naylor, whose talents for physical theatre are explored but never fully stretched. Full of a thousand pithy observations, it will draw you into its intimate emotional world and send you out with a smile on your face.
My Robot Heart was at the Oxford Playhouse on 21 and 22 June. It os now touring. For tour dates, information and tickets, visit the Show and Tell website.