Highrise – The Space, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer and Director: Jacob Kay

As a theatre’s lights go on and the applause ends, what’s more natural now than to reach into your pocket and take your AI-powered computer out to switch it back on, connecting yourself to the network and almost every bit of information man has ever created.

The rise of AI to the attention of the general population in the last few months brings to light a difficult relationship with technology we must reckon with. Thoughtful exploration is needed and that’s what we get here from Jacob Kay. The reciprocating dependency loop between humans and technological advancement is the focus here. Who needs who, which side is actually in overall control?

Pepperjack works relentlessly in a strict, unchanging schedule to maintain a specific section of an empty highrise building. His only company is Cassandra, an advanced AI system, who keeps him on schedule and talks to him as a real human would. We go through some snips of his memory to try and build a picture of who he is today. Normal enough, until the play’s central (enjoyable) twist makes us question everything we know about what we’ve been watching.

The dialogue and the AI companion’s name nods to the Greek myth of Cassandra who was cursed with the gift of prophecy knowing that no one could ever believe her. This reference to the Greek myths becomes a neat way of explaining the whole play. Pepperjack is locked in a constantly resetting set of actions, his version of Sisyphus’ repetitive torment. Unlike his Ancient Greek counterpart, however, Pepperjack feels he has found a way out.

Surprising no one, this play about a man’s relationship with an AI based hologram curves into quite a dystopian sci-fi arc. Its broad sweeps are easy to grasp and are gripping in the ideas, concepts and ramifications they posit while the details of the narrative itself are trickier to recognise and track. Within an hour’s run-time, the man’s evolution from happy loner to desperate inmate is clear and arresting, but the steps feel jerky and rushed. Equally, Cassandra’s journey from companion to something more sinister is fascinating but happens in leaps, not steps. Writer and director Jacob Ray also plays Pepperjack here and acts as an ideal medium through which the experiences of the man at each stage (happy with his lot, dawning realisation, tense rebellion). He’s matched by a great performance from Helen Baird as Cassandra.

Minimal props and stage decoration, and some lighting and minimal sound from Rachael Bellis keep the focus on the ideas covered without much ornamentation. It’s thought-provoking and highly relevant as our every waking moment becomes subject at some level to an AI’s charms. Kay’s message seems to be a warning to be careful of what relationship we actually develop with these machines, and it’s a sharp one.

Runs until 19 August 2023

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Thoughtful AI parable

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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