Updated: Sep 20
Review by Sam Waite
Opening a new season at Hampstead Theatre, Anthropology takes themes both currently relevant and eternally relatable. Lauren Gunderson’s play plays with elements of murder mystery, family saga, and modern techno-thriller, and explores the ways that artificial intelligence and new developments in technology could not help and hinder the progress of those mourning a loved one.
Merril lost her younger sister, Angie, around a year before the play begins, but both are present (in their own way) for the opening scene. Having a solid understanding of programming, Merril had used the messages, voicemails, and online presence of her sister to create a new Angie – a “glorified chat bot” she says, but something she feels will help her to finally adjust to life without the real Angie. Needless to say, Merril’s ex-girlfriend and mother are both unsure of this approach to healing, especially when “Angie” claims that with more information she can establish what happened to Angie, and that she may still be alive.
Gunderson writes believable dialogue between the two sisters, their back and forth so genuine and evident of a shared history that the revelation of Angie’s death, made clear in the online synopsis, is still a gut punch. Once we know the truth, she cleverly has “Angie” speak just a bit too well, just a tad too direct to truly be the young woman we know her to have been. An emotionally intelligent playwright, Gunderson also knows better than to have any character either fully embrace or completely reject “Angie” and instead allows their relief and misgivings to develop as the story progresses, giving a richer emotional arc for the small cast of characters. “Angie” included.
Dakota Blue Richards appears as both Angie and “Angie”, through pre-recorded voiceover and video work, as well as key scenes where she is seen on stage. Richards brings a snarky sense of familial warmth to the role, even when not appearing live onstage, and also delivers a detached coldness when “Angie” acknowledges her own lack of humanity. As the girls’ mother, Abigail Thaw makes good use of her brief appearances to help us understand how this damaged, unsure woman helped to create Merril’s neurotic, fragile personality.
Yolanda Kettle’s work as ex-girlfriend (and potentially returning partner) Raquel provides some genuine humanity ti keep Merril from being left on stage with a computer programme for too much of the runtime. Kettle is appealing and carries the hesitant affection with ease, even with Raquel’s ease at accepting Merril’s coping mechanism does seem a tad rushed. Indeed, a handful of moments where the sensibility and potential damage of creating an artificial sister to speak to are moved past via a scene change and our assumption of a discussion than our actually seeing one take place. As much intrigue as it brings to the piece, the techno-detective elements can at times overwhelm the narrative around grief and familial trauma.
Merril herself is played with sensitivity and heart by MyAnna Buring, charming and expressive enough that she could have easily carried a one-woman show speaking to a not-really-present sibling had Gunderson taken that approach. Buring plays Merril as too open and too ready to love from the first moments, allowing us to immediately connect with and feel protective of her. Your feelings around the methodology and the rise of technology may vary, but you'll likely understand with little hesitation why Merril made her choice, so nuanced is Buring’s emotion-over-logic portrayal.
Where Lauren Gunderson's dialogue is strong and quickly establishes relationships and histories, the plotting is less even. Coming in at just ninety minutes, Anthropology spends slightly too long on its AI component at the expense of deepening and further exploring the human relationships – a reunion with Raquel is hasty as the plot requires their reconnecting for the next part of the “Angie” storyline, and the final scene is too blunt and, without spoilers, undoes some of the emotional work that the plot could inspire.
Returning for her twelfth show at Hampstead Theatre, Anna Ledwich’s experience shows as she manoeuvres her cast both physics and emotionally, keeping stakes and realism present despite a sparse, metaphorical staging. Georgia Lowe’s bare, striking set finds the action set against a stark white backdrop, the presence of only a door suggesting how little Merril feels she has without Angie in her life. The stage feels enormous when so barren, giving a literalised suggestion of the emptiness of a loss, and the overwhelming nature of grief.
Perhaps appropriate, given the content, the technical elements of the show are well-constructed and always impactful. Similar to West End juggernaut 2:22 A Ghost Story, James Whiteside’s lighting has a frame of light punctuate the end of each scene, helping to cover any exits or entrances made during blackouts on stage, while his dimming of the stage lights to suggest night and the starkness of the lights in the daytime help to established how detached Merril’s home and workspace are from reality. Max Pappenheim’s compositions sit just below the surface, audible but never the main focus, giving them to ability to help shape emotional responses while not becoming overbearing or taking away from the reality of the feelings at play.
Video design from Daniel Denton brings “Angie” to life, and allows for her to be projected in larger, more imposing form across the blank walls of the stage. As “Angie” takes over Merril’s time and her thoughts, her increased, possibly harmful presence in her life is made clear by how grand Denton’s visual work becomes. Matched with the work of Whiteside and Pappenheim, this makes for some truly impactful moments where the presence of technology genuinely enhances the human arc in the work and brings shades of thriller into the emotion-heavy storylines.
There are signs of too many ideas in a relatively short play, and of them not meshing as well together as the playwright may have hoped. Despite this, the strong acting and believable characters do keep things moving along, and while I found the ending to be an underwhelming conclusion, the themes being explored are pertinent and the team here should be commended for their willingness to delve into these ideas. Neither grief nor artificial intelligence is as deeply explored as it ought to be, but Anthropology has a great deal in its favour, and may serve to kickstart conversations about technology's place in theatre.
Anthropology plays at Hampstead Theatre until October 14th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2023/anthropology/
Photos by The Other Richard