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Review: MARJORIE PRIME, Menier Chocolate Factory

This stagnant 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist offers a dystopian grieving process that's only saved by its great performances.

By: Mar. 26, 2023
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Review: MARJORIE PRIME, Menier Chocolate Factory  ImageIn an unspecified future, it's customary for people to have digital copies of their late loved ones. These android versions are part of a service called "Prime" (nothing to do with Jeff Bezos' empire, we think, but who knows). They gradually grow to have the same knowledge of the dead person's lived experience through artificial intelligence and conversations with the surviving members of the family. It's a dystopian grieving process.

85-year-old Marjorie (Anne Reid) is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. She enjoys having her husband Walter (Richard Fleeshman), frozen at 30 years of age, recollect a happy past she can hardly remember. Her daughter Tess (Nancy Carroll) doesn't trust this new tech and finds it disturbing.

Jordan Harrison's 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist is a reflection on mortality and grief that doesn't dare to plunge into the depths of the matter. It ends up being rather stagnant philosophically and anthropologically, but Dominic Dromgoole's latest production is a delicate take on it. Running at 85 minutes on paper but around 70 in reality, the piece's greatly sophisticated performances and sleek look save it from its redundant nature.

After Fleeshman, both Reid and Carroll get the chance to try their hand at being an uncanny version of themselves with exceptional results. Reid turns her vacant, profound stare that gets lost in her fading memories into a kinder, more understanding Marjorie when Tess gets her own Prime. The daughter calls out these subtle differences as she describes her mother to her cyborg lookalike, introducing a prouder, more caustic individual than what sits in front of her.

She struggles to define their relationship, neglecting to bring up the cause of their shared trauma - her brother Damian's untimely death, something that Marjorie always refused to talk about. It's an intriguing dynamic, given the circumstances and limits of the rapport, but it's ultimately basic drama. Carroll becomes a Prime herself after her own suicide on a holiday on Madagascar with her husband Jonathan.

Tony Jayawardena is the true delight of the show. With charismatic humour and clockwork comic timing, he lightens up the room. He portrays a supportive life partner who urges his wife to go to therapy (she is obviously against it) and feeds Walter Prime additional information to make Marjorie's experience better and more realistic. Jayawardena steals the scene effortlessly. He is quietly heartbreaking when his character comes to the realisation that he's not actually speaking to Tess, but to another version.

There are plenty of thought-provoking morsels in the play, it's a shame that they're left largely unexplored. We get a feeling that the piece hasn't aged too well. It might have been revolutionary almost a decade ago, but technology has advanced too quickly and the ideas in it aren't as awe-inducing as they were. It feels stuffy.

Jonathan Fensom designs an elegant living space with dark wood and classic lines. The only technological advancement in it comes as a translucent glass tablet placed on the kitchen island. The visuals create an interesting balance: while striking, the room looks too normal for comfort. Digital windows close at each scene change, opening again into different seaside weather until they roll up to display stars in space during the final, strange part.

The three Primes collect in the same house that somehow exists outside of the real world to discuss their family with a peculiarly smooth robotic cadence. Their conversation mirrors what they were fed by their humans, sometimes with the same turns of phrase. They don't feel the need to fill the silences, so long pauses appear between their scripted memories. It's a bit weird.

Ultimately, it feels like a missed opportunity on many levels. The disquieting presence of the Primes when they're not being used is left unmentioned, leading to a lack of atmosphere. The flops of Marjorie's cultural references (Jonathan doesn't recognise Beyoncé's "Single Ladies") are the only indication of a vague time setting, but they just act as lighthearted comedy. Dromgoole can thank his cast: they're the ones who make the show.

Marjorie Prime runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre until 6 May.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan


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