Marjorie Prime at Menier Chocolate Factory review: Anne Reid is magnificent

 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

Though talky and static as a piece of drama, Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated 2014 play is an intriguing meditation on ageing, death and Artificial Intelligence.

Dominic Dromgoole’s coolly understated production features performances to relish from the magnificent Anne Reid – the 87-year-old star of Years and Years, dinnerladies and Sanditon – and from Evening Standard Award winner Nancy Carroll, who went on after three days poleaxed by viral laryngitis.

As a sci-fi nerd I’m delighted to see a playwright think himself into the future and find a storyline expressing existential fear about AI without resorting to apocalyptic battles and killer robots. Though to be clear, I’d like to see those on stage more often, too.

Designer Jonathan Fensom presents us with a stylish, wood-lined modernist flat overlooking an ocean. Reid’s elderly Marjorie is gently chided for not eating by young Walter (Richard Fleeshman), whose bland expression and affectless speech identify him as an android. Turns out he is a construct of her dead husband, designed to stimulate her memory and therefore slow her growing dementia.

Where Walter is emotionless, merely absorbing and conveying information, Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Carroll) is a bundle of repressed anger, guilt and frustration. Tony Jayawardena as her husband Jon adds warmth and compassion to what might otherwise be an arid emotional brew.

Anne Reid (Marjorie), Nancy Carroll (Tess), Tony Jayawardena (Jon) (Manuel Harlan)
Anne Reid (Marjorie), Nancy Carroll (Tess), Tony Jayawardena (Jon) (Manuel Harlan)

The sense we’re in a future recognisably close to our present is nicely established: Marjorie is so old she “still had an iPhone” before rejecting tech, and we learn later she was born in 1977. It’s probably impossible to act the part of a robot without resorting to one cliché or another but the humanoid AIs here are at least believable: placid, reactive but still somehow unnerving.

Though just 80 minutes long, the play has three acts, and in the second Tess is working through her unresolved issues with an AI of Marjorie. The shadow of mental ill-health as well as cognitive decline increasingly hangs over the play. The last chapter asks what it means when machines remember us better than we remember ourselves, and will outlive us: where does the ‘self’ reside then?

As well as being a prolific playwright, Harrison is a TV writer and producer whose credits include three seasons of Orange is the New Black. His writing has a small-screen minimalism here, but big thematic ambition. There are no fireworks – or lasers, or spaceships – in this futuristic drama, but much to chew on.

My father died after several years with dementia in 2020 so I appreciated Reid’s mix of beadiness and bafflement, and the flashes of mislaid personality: it’s so good to see this most subtle and knowing of actresses back on stage. Tess’s weariness and petulance is also well done, and Carroll is a trooper: I’d never have guessed she’d been ill if it hadn’t been announced beforehand. Marjorie Prime offers stimulating ideas and some great acting, but it’s not a great play.

Menier Chocolate Factory, to 6 May;