Anthropology: an intelligent AI murder-mystery premise sunk by an artificial plot

MyAnna Buring with Dakota Blue Richards in Anthropology, at Hampstead Theatre
MyAnna Buring with Dakota Blue Richards in Anthropology, at Hampstead Theatre - The Other Richard

It begins with an affectionate sibling greeting: “Hey, what’s up, a---hole?”. That’s how the irreverent Angie usually talks to her big sister, so why is Merril stunned? That reveal comes part way through what seems like a normal phone call. Angie has actually been missing, presumed dead, for over a year; this simulation is the result of a ChatGPT-type programme built by Merril, a Silicon Valley software engineer.

It’s a cracking premise from American playwright Lauren Gunderson, harnessing zeitgeist topics such as the ways technology increasingly defines our relationships, and the existential threat posed by AI. Her sci-fi concept isn’t entirely “fi” – in 2021 a Canadian man created a similar chatbot of his late fiancée. Gunderson also adds a thriller element: the Angie AI claims that, with access to the vast resources of the internet, it can solve the mystery of her disappearance.

Initially, Gunderson balances those elements expertly, her sharp wit leavening some of the gloom and doom. Merril generates the digital Angie (who eventually appears on video too) via her text messages, emails, voicemails, photos, search history, even her shopping habits – “You sent back a lot of leggings.” It’s a fascinating study of online identity versus our real-world selves, although the hard truth here is that Merril has created a much nicer version of her chaotic, demanding sister, hoping that this Angie will forgive her.

Frustratingly, though, the play becomes dominated by overwrought family drama following the introduction of Merril’s ex-girlfriend Raquel (whose presence the real Angie resented) and mum Brin. Neither character convinces: Raquel is defined by her wholesome lemon curd-making, while Brin is a Southern-fried, trailer-trash, druggie stereotype (played by an oddly cast Abigail Thaw). The thriller basically disappears until a ridiculous late plot twist.

It’s a shame, because MyAnna Buring gives a wrenching performance as the obsessive, grief- and insomnia-fuelled Merril, trapped in a barren room dominated by laptops and monitors – although Georgia Lowe’s grey-box set rather strands the actors. Dakota Blue Richards is excellent too, giving the bratty sister an uncanny machine quality.

Anna Ledwich’s production has chilly, sinister touches: the video of Angie flickers and skips, suddenly giving us a close-up of one watchful eye; a riveted Brin strokes her daughter’s cheek on the screen. James Whiteside’s harsh lighting has a queasy quality. It all contributes to an atmospheric and philosophically resonant piece, showing how technology is, ultimately, driven by humanity; we can make it comforting or threatening, pure or biased, a diversion or an addiction. As for the plot, though? Does not compute.

Until Oct 14. Tickets: 020 7722 9301;