Spillikin is Raymond’s word for the degenerative disease that makes him send small objects flying, scattering shards of broken mugs in the flowerbeds. And, in director and writer Jon Welch’s heart-shattering drama about love and dementia, it also becomes the name for the robot that takes Raymond’s place after he dies, holding his wife Sally together as her memory breaks apart.
Helen Ryan’s extraordinary performance as Sally is at the emotional heart of this piece: she ages decades in a single hour, her face sagging and fading as her illness progresses. She starts out sharp, still stylish in a crisp white shirt, and frustrated at the robot that’s arrived to amuse her. But as she sinks further into dementia, she seems to breathe life into Spillikin through the warmth of her love for it, through her need for it to be something more than an automaton. And, Pinocchio-like, it becomes alive to her touch, its jerky gestures gaining a human vulnerability as she tenderly smoothes a blanket over its lap.
Even as Tokyo robotics specialists journey deeper into uncanny valley with ever more convincing androids, they can’t hope to improve on human actors any time soon – although they’re probably tidier to share a dressing room with. But robot maker Will Jackson has managed the impressive feat of creating a robot capable of radiating warmth from its light-up blue face, as well as embodying every teenagers’ wildest sci-fi fantasies.
Sally’s not surprised by the appearance of an android companion that encourages her to reminisce, or play silly games of Eye Spy, in an electronic model of the kind of endlessly patient care that humans can find too painful to give. We see through flashbacks to forty years ago that her husband Raymond was a robotics specialist who first charmed her with a rudimentary moving toy as she waited for her piano lesson. Although this isn’t quite as charming as it might sound: what lends Sally’s character vitality, as well as poignancy, is the spikiness of her younger self. “I’m horrible”, says her present day self, remembering the scorn which she treated the piano teacher’s nerdy son with – before they married, half for a lark.
Sally’s younger self is a Debbie Harry-obsessed, swearing teenager who Anna Munden plays with the desperate energy of a caged monkey, flinging itself against the bars. She and Raymond are a couple as unlikely as their eventual choice of wedding reception venue: a Wimpy Bar, with champagne in styrofoam cups. Michael Tonkin-Jones performance as a lovestruck, robot-obsessed teenage Raymond is uncomfortably truthful. We squirm alongside him as he haplessly tells her, daunted by her sexual experience, that “holding hands is better for my money”.
Forty years on, and holding hands is all that’s left. Sally’s untethering from reality leaves her unsure where memory ends and robot begins – but it’s an ethical quandary she greets calmly, however much the audience might struggle with it. We see her memories leave her, chunk by chunk, as rows of books are invisibly removed from the shelves of the study walls behind her. It’s a device that could seem hackneyed, but when overlaid with co-designers Alan and Jude Munden’s stark projections of barer and barer landscapes, is actually gently moving.
But then Welch’s whole play is an exercise in making what must be extremely complicated seem very, very simple. Spillikin is an unlikely triumph: a finely-tuned technological equation that pays out in pure emotional power.