Anthropology at Hampstead Theatre review: Twilight Zone-style AI drama is polished, pacey but at times absurd

Yolanda Kettle and MyAnna Buring in Anthropology at Hampstead Theatre (The Other Richard)
Yolanda Kettle and MyAnna Buring in Anthropology at Hampstead Theatre (The Other Richard)

In Lauren Gunderson’s polished, pacey but sporadically absurd play a programmer called Merril constructs an AI model of her younger sister Angie, who went missing and was presumed murdered a year before, using her social media data, messages, purchasing history and so on. No prizes for guessing that the virtual construct soon becomes more than a mere tool of consolation.

To say much more about the plot would risk spoilers, but the story unfolds like a tech-savvy version of The Lovely Bones, where the ghost is quite literally in the machine. Are our physical selves more real than our accumulated online data? Might an edited, tweaked computer version of a person be better than the complex, combative human – or at least, “real enough”?

On the plus side, Anthropology is up-to-the-minute, grappling with AI and its philosophical implications in a thoroughly engaging way (though my guest, who writes about tech, told me it uses every possible cliché about machine-learning systems). MyAnna Buring brings a brittle, fractured intensity to Merril, almost swamped by her shape-concealing clothes. Dakota Blue Richards is acidly funny as the glitchy, bitchy, algorithmic Angie.

MyAnna Buring and Dakota Blue Richards in Anthropology (The Other Richard)
MyAnna Buring and Dakota Blue Richards in Anthropology (The Other Richard)

On the minus side, it is weirdly insular. The characters seem to have no life outside the sterile room set designed by Georgia Lowe. Inside, they work through their grief and anger in methodical, bite-sized chunks, leavened with wry humour: there’s an evolving running gag, underscoring the play’s themes of identity, about the way Merril’s ex-girlfriend Raquel (Yolanda Kettle) is defined by her homemade lemon curd. But Merril and Angie’s mother Brin (Abigail Thaw) is a crude assemblage of tabloid headlines: neglectful, addicted to substances and multiply married, now using Jesus to keep herself off “the drugs”.

Gunderson has been America’s most performed living playwright since 2016 and is also a screenwriter but is little known in British theatre apart from a 2018 production of her play I and You here at Hampstead. Maybe because her writing, on the evidence of this world premiere, has an easy, televisual facility, slipping neatly from angst to snark and back again like a snappy Netflix comedy drama. This play is economically constructed, and Anna Ledwich’s briskly efficient production brings it to berth in 90 minutes flat.

I really don’t mean to sound too snarky myself because if you can get over the required leaps in credibility – and there’s a huge one around the 60-minute mark – this is an enjoyable evening. Anthropology engages with our tech-mediated lives and with speculative futures in a way theatre rarely does. Buring and Richards create an impressively credible intimacy given one of them is mostly just a disembodied voice.

More than anything, this strikes me as a sleek, theatrical take on mid-20th century sci-fi short stories, or shows like The Twilight Zone, where everything superfluous to the central, paranoid argument is jettisoned. Taken as such, it works.

Hampstead Theatre to October 14;