Game of Life takes its title from mathematician John Conway’s model for cellular automaton design. This showed how patterns emerge from very simple rules and potentially explains everything from the formation of the universe to the development of free will.
From this central metaphor three plot strands spin which inevitably begin to intertwine. Despite the potential for over-burdening this frail structure, the writer Rose Lewenstein neatly explores the implications of this deterministic model of reality for five characters trying to make sense of loss. Under physics graduate Russell Bender’s direction, the play explores huge questions in a deceptively simple and affecting way.
Schoolgirl Isabel, played by Kate Mayne, is the main point of connection. Her repeated refrain “It’s not just a game, it’s a world. I mean, it’s not just a world, it’s a game”, sums up the central dilemma. For Isabel, who is autistic, human emotions are much messier than games. But understanding real life to be like her beloved Sims game doesn’t make events such as the recent death of her father any easier to understand. The resemblance between life and the Game of Life is confusing – why should we care about life when it continues indifferent to us?
She becomes intrigued by her reclusive neighbour Gregory (Richard Clews), who has worked obsessively on the Game of Life since the tragic death of his mathematician colleague. Her biology teacher and confidant Tom (Nicholas Karimi) begins to face up to differences with his fiancée Claire (Stephanie Thomas), whom he knows he loves because she makes his “neurons connect”. Their relationship stalls when she demands a church wedding, insisting illogically ‘it means nothing’ since he is an atheist. Meanwhile, Isabel’s mother Caroline (Catherine Cusack) privately grieves for her husband. Eventually, Isabel’s understanding of Gregory’s work makes Tom embrace his own atheistic worldview.
The characters are all invested with enough depth and distinction to make each scenario stand on its own. Claire’s laconic manner and her fiancé’s depressive tendencies are deftly drawn, creating a whole picture of a relationship in a few brief exchanges. Bender’s staging is considered, but subtle enough not to deflect from the sensitive performances. The actors move around a grid taped on the floor, which visually echoes the ever present table with checkers demonstrating Conway’s model. The scene shifts are indicated by the lighting, which illuminates each situation like a Petri dish, the interconnectedness of all the characters reinforced by a recurring word, sentiment or prop.
Gradually the ideas converge in a cacophonous finale which is the only weak point of the production. It’s a neat idea to have these characters’ interdependence shown by their unwitting adoption of each other’s ideas about loneliness. They hopelessly repeat the divisive and alien sentiments over the course of five minutes or so, with Isabel’s pained confused reaction a proxy for the audience. It’s oddly anti-climactic, especially when the question of a God is raised. While Conway’s model has been used to explain a ‘Godless universe’, the play is more interesting when it takes godlessness as a given. Positing religion as an answer undermines the point that we depend on frameworks to understand reality – and then find ourselves trapped by them, no different from the ants in the ant farm studied intently by Tom.
The slight sense of anti-climax could also be down to the size of the venue which, despite the ingenious staging, is too poky and exposing to make stepping out of the grid dramatically effective. Game of Life needs a bigger space to realise its scope – which is a small complaint about what is a brilliantly constructed and performed piece of theatre.