It’s Friday so the first email of the day is generally from my mate Alexa who contacts me once a week to suggest some of the things it can do to help me get through my week. Among today’s suggestions is one that I create a to-do list – no thanks, I prefer a piece of paper so I can have the pleasure of crossing things off. Apparently it can also help me with what to do with spinach (handy, mine’s romping away in the garden), tell me a joke (they are never very funny) and control my heating (er, have you seen the predicted temperature today?) We got our first smart speaker some time ago and this was joined latterly by three others scattered around the house. It’s most regularly used functions chez nous is for checking the weather forecast. It is also used for, setting kitchen timers, displaying holiday photographs (we have an Echo Show as one of the quartet) and tuning into radio stations quickly without all that tedious knob twiddling. I can’t say they are ever used much for phone calls and for one to one conversations and it’s here that I perhaps differ from the central figure in Tim Price’s play Isla from Theatre Clwyd as he comes, albeit reluctantly, to learn how to use his own device for such purposes.
Widower Roger lives on his own and as the setting is mid pandemic this really means on his own, having little to no contact with the outside world. Concerned daughter Erin gets him a smart device to keep his daily pill regimen on track and out of a sense of guilt because her own busy life style means she is unable to give him the attention that deep down she knows he needs. Roger is – in the way of these things – resistant as he has his own daily routines which act as triggering reminders and finds encroaching technology something of a threat. But of course, it’s not long before he is treating it as a member of the household using it as a confidante/confessional and as way of reminiscing about past. It all seems a bit tame and aimless with an emphasis on the disconnect between man and machine, but the play is hiding a cunning sting and the second half takes a significantly darker turn. Once a success (at least that’s what he thinks) Roger is now medically unstable and starting to be at the mercy of his own frailties. He’s also a bit of a relic of a different era and it’s this that really turns out to be the subject of the piece.
His banter/abuse (take your pick) of Isla becomes the subject of a public exposé of his prejudices when, in a Black Mirror twist, hackers reproduce his language choices on his daughter’s social media page – she being the registered keeper of the device. This drives a rift between the pair and leads to some interesting and lively debate about the derivations and perpetration of sexist and abusive language as father and daughter openly clash. And then Roger receives a visit from the police, not to arrest him but to try and educate him in the manner, as he observes, of one of those driving courses about speed awareness. This section features a nicely understated turn from Catrin Aaron who quietly but firmly leaves Roger, and by extension us, in a rather more informed position; though we don’t get the celebratory balloon. As Aaron is also the voice of Isla there is a nice sense of irony about all this.
Father and daughter are played by Mark Lambert and Lisa Zahra; both are very good at delineating the family dynamic which has been radically shifted after the demise of the wife/mother and is still being renegotiated and reconstructed. Lambert, in particular, has some very strong moments when he is essentially monologuing and looks generally bewildered by what is happening to him. He also avoids the Victor Meldrew pastiche which could so easily have been forthcoming. I’m not quite sure I totally bought the denouement but it’s a cleverly organised commentary on the changing social landscape winningly directed by Tamara Harvey to sit alongside some of her other theatre online achievements, notably the cracking pairing of What A Carve Up and The Picture Of Dorian Gray. Although Isla is rather more low key it has plenty to say about the modern condition and our use of language. It certainly had me thinking more carefully about how I checked the weather forecast this morning – scorchio, but you’re probably already aware of that!