The Hugvie, a kind of Japanese robot, is a faceless and sexless monopedal blob which looks alarmingly like a half-chewed jelly baby. Pillow-like and primary-coloured, it has been designed to administer hugs to its owners. When attached to a mobile phone, the robot is able to replicate a caller’s tone through vibration, taking a verbal experience and making it physical. Its little mutant jelly baby arms quiver while its owners caress it, placid as cats. But this is just the tip of things. Research is already underway – according to poet and performer Molly Naylor – to create the robot that can fall in love, or to at least replicate the behaviour of someone in love: artificial intelligence giving rise to artificial emotion.
A prototype model has already been created though this had to be shelved because its behaviour grew erratic. As opening images go this is a potent one: love as emotional malfunction, a case of faulty wiring, a 404 service error of the soul. Love is a chemical process, a computer programme with a fixed end point, Naylor explains, and she is interested in how to sustain a relationship beyond that point Inspired by late- night reading about heart-sore robots and having recently split from a partner at an age when most of her peers were tying the knot, Naylor started to write stories, the results of which form the central part of her show. Robots are sadly noticeable by their absence from this point forwards. While she uses this image as a jumping off point, the waters she lands in are only waist-high.
Naylor interweaves a couple of narrative strands. A woman, Eliza, has a pre-wedding freak out and runs away to consider whether she’s making the right decision. Meanwhile her terminally ill father Harry is having a freak out of his own over the prospect of making a speech at the wedding. Naylor’s stories are accompanied by two-girl group The Middle Ones, who sit pixie-like at the side of the stage, singing sweetly if winsomely. But while some attempt has been made to integrate them into the piece and there’s some amusing banter about their lack of acting ability, their presence is frustratingly underutilised.
Naylor’s material at times has the feel of gentle observational stand-up – what the kind of wardrobe you own says about where you are in your life emotionally., that kind of thing – but the story meanders and drifts and back-steps and never really tells you anything about love or fear. Naylor has grown in confidence as a performer since her last show, Every Time I Get Blown Up I Think of You, which saw her interrogating her response to being caught up in the 7/7 attacks. But both her material and the still fairly static way in which it is presented feel in need of more development. Given all the potential embedded in that first image, the robot obeying its programming by clinging on to the person it thinks it wants, unwilling to ever let go, the stories that follow are decidedly tepid. In this case the robot’s blood runs hotter.