Review by Sam Waite
In a world where Black Mirror has risen from cult sensation to global smash hit, having moved from helping to propel the careers of UK soon-to-be stars to attracting the Hollywood elite, speculative thrillers are clearly a draw. In its world premiere at London’s Park Theatre, Andrew Stein’s Disruption imagines what the future of our collective relationship with artificial intelligence could look like as algorithms begin to surpass traditional methods of guidance.
Nick, extremely wealthy for his work in Silicon Valley, gathers his friends for a dinner in Tribeca – three couples, everyone a long-time friend of Nick’s despite openly criticising his past behaviour. Wined and dined, the group are invited to invest in a new start-up from Nick and his much younger business partner, Raven, who claim they have created an algorithm that can guide human beings towards the best choices for their future happiness. Understandably, none are willing to give $500,000 to the project, and the group go their separate ways, while we learn that they are already being used as test subjects, with Nick following the algorithm’s guidance to direct them towards the “correct” choices.
From a technical standpoint, this production is a masterful showcase for the abilities and instincts of the creative minds involved. The floor of Zoë Hurwitz’s stage is indented and patterned to resemble a computer chip, creating the idea of the group acting within a computer program long before the experimentation is revealed to us, while an angled screen is used for select scenes as a monitor, Nick and Raven stood behind it to further establish their role as experimenters. Likewise, Robbie Butler’s lighting and Daniel Denton’s video design lean into the tech-forward aesthetic, individual lights shaped into 0s and 1s projected onto the stage and even used to create a rippling rain effect.
The cast of eight are mostly strong, with standouts in Mika Simmons, Nick Read and Debbie Korley. As unhappily married Jill and Paul, Simmons and Read are believable in both their bickering and their determination that the marriage can be saved – a moment where she tries to open up transparency in their marriage, asking about him desiring another woman, his mocking response is both amusing and devastating. Simmons brings an implicit backstory and heart to a character who could easily be written off as an archetypically shrewish wife, while Read imbues Paul with enough charm that we can see why she married him, and enough poorly hidden sadness that we can see why he might stray.
Korley plays Suzie, a confident woman, a psychiatrist by trade, and the wife of Ben (Nathaniel Curtis). Looking back, I’m not sure if the script gave her more sarcastic retorts than the others, or if she’s simply the actor who delivered them with the most impact. Alongside some stellar dramatic work later on, in an awkward dinner scene she is the only one to make awkward pauses before the sarcastic replies feel like a character choice – where everyone else seems to have slow reactions, she is clearly collecting herself, wondering what these fools are asking, and then giving her answer.
With it being a universal issue throughout all eight performances, I have to assume that the awkward and occasionally stilted pacing of some of the dialogue is down to director Hersh Ellis. Perhaps in a deliberate attempt to show a disconnect and further the experimentation themes, or possibly a misstep in trying to ensure dialogue doesn’t overlap and become muddles, his ensemble scenes don’t have the snappiness or quick-wittedness that the text calls for. Ellis has drawn some great moments out of his cast, so it’s a shame that these moments too often remain individual rather blending into the group dynamic.
A newcomer to the stage, Sasha Desouza-Willock appears as Raven, noted immediately as being significantly younger than the other characters. Initially, I thought my difficulty connecting with Raven was down to questions raised by her age. The other characters are implied to be in or approaching middle age, most of them over 40, despite 32-year-old Nathaniel Curtis having appeared as a university student as recently as 2021 in It’s a Sin. Once the suspension of disbelief was back in place, the issue proved to be Desouza-Willock being the weak link among the cast – Raven is an unforgiving role, too easy to make flat, too blunt, and disconnected in her mannerisms, and Desouza-Willock unfortunately hasn’t been able to create a humanity within the role.
There is both wittiness and genuine affection between characters in Stein’s script, with the obviously flawed characters having enough backstory and shorthand built into their interactions to fill in the blanks on why such different people are all lifelong friends. In terms of plotting and creating a through-line, the work is rock solid, with implications and hints towards the eventual outcomes of each plot-thread planting early and each one coming together with a genuine emotional weight as things progress. A major fault, however, is the exit of Raven from the narrative, as after her final scene she simply ceases to appear, adding to the question of why, beyond expositing for our sake, the story needed Nick to have a partner. Along with the strong but disparate direction, where performances have individual been well-moulded but not completely integrated with one another, this left me wondering if the piece may have benefitted from a longer gestation period.
Although it does stumble in some key areas, this play has been given a stellar production for its debut – among the other visual flourishes achieved by Hurwitz, Butler, and Denton, movement director Leanne Pinder has created exquisitely choreographed sequences to allow for set changes and shifts in time. Characters adjust furniture and props as they chat on their way to new starting points, as if we are seeing a timelapse of the rest of the evening or cross the stage hurriedly as Asaf Zohar’s sound design – and exciting digital score – reinforce the heaviness of rainfall or the disquieted emotions of the cast.
Far from perfect but with fleeting moments of brilliance, where this play struggles as a techno-thriller it succeeds as a character study and examination of how relationships can be affected by changes and decision-making. The technology focus is insightful and important, but that plotline falls too far into the background and is resolved too quickly to leave a lasting impression. Still, it does raise some valid questions, and offers up two hours of commanding, incredibly well-crafted visual and sonic elements that help to showcase the potential further development of Disruption could unlock.
Disruption plays at the Park Theatre until August 5th.
For tickets and information visit https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/disruption/
Photos by Pamela Raith