Stef Smith is an Olivier Award-winning Scottish playwright. Her critically-acclaimed Edinburgh Festival Fringe piece, Swallow, was chosen to be staged as the first-ever National Theatre of Parramatta production in 2016. Three years later, NTofP have taken on another of Smith’s works. On this occasion, it’s 2017’s Girl in the machine.

Set in the “not too distant future”, Girl in the machine is a dystopian piece about an efficacious thirty-something married couple, Polly (Chantelle Jamieson) and Owen (Brandon McClelland). He’s a nurse and she’s a recently-promoted corporate lawyer who, it’s quickly established, is a workaholic. One night, Owen returns home with a device he picked up from the hospital called ‘Black Box’. 

Brandon McClelland and Chantelle Jamieson in National Theatre of Parramatta’s
Girl in the machine
(Photo by Noni Carroll)

‘Black Box’ is a new technology that allures with the promise of helping its users relax, and the initially sceptical Polly is quickly converted. In fact, it’s not long before she’s addicted to ‘Black Box’, eschewing the real world – including Owen. And while problems have arisen in the couple’s own home, we’re given snippets of information that indicate grave concerns have been raised in the wider community about the societal impact of ‘Black Box’. It seems as though those in charge may be exploiting the technology for sinister purposes. And that doesn’t sound as though it’s too great a stretch, given that this is a world in which we’re told people are already living with ‘citizen chips’ implanted under their skin. 

We’re currently attempting to grapple with the latent ramifications of unleashing the capabilities of artificial intelligence, so Smith’s text is an apt cautionary tale about becoming enraptured with the digital to the point of destroying our human relationships. Here, an addiction to technology has similar consequences to those we associate with more established forms of addiction. Again, considering our slavish devotion to smartphones, it’s a fitting comparison. There are also relevant questions raised around the concept of mind control and the ways in which our digital interactions can be monitored and manipulated.

Chantelle Jamieson in National Theatre of Parramatta’s Girl in the machine
(Photo by Noni Carroll)

Directed by Claudia Barrie, this production is anchored by two terrific performances from Jamieson and McClelland. While the text gives them limited opportunity to share with the audience much background information about their characters, both actors succeed in portraying individuals who are recognisable. Jamieson does well in morphing from a self-possessed workhorse to someone fraught and restless when disconnected from her now preferred reality. McClelland is convincing as her loving partner, determined to bring her back into an imperfect but actual reality. 

Ella Butler’s set has the play unfolding entirely within the couple’s apartment, suitably constructed as an enclosed glass box, sitting front and centre of the Lennox Theatre stage. It does mean there’s a physical barrier between audience and performers for the duration of the show, but that doesn’t present an enormous issue here. Benjamin Brockman’s lighting and Benjamin Pierpoint’s sound choices marry beautifully with events on stage.

Chantelle Jamieson in National Theatre of Parramatta’s Girl in the machine
(Photo by Noni Carroll)

The production has a short running time – 50 minutes – but it’s ultimately plenty of time to tell this story. There isn’t an enormous amount of narrative development nor twists and turns. That said, it effectively paints a bleak Orwellian picture and evokes thought about the short distance that exists between Smith’s imagined dystopia and the world in which we live. 


GIRL IN THE MACHINE – SEASON DETAILS

Remaining performances:
Friday 28th June at 7.45pm
Saturday 29th June at 2.15pm and 7.45pm

Venue: Riverside Theatres – Corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta

Tickets: Adult $49, Concession $44.
Available from https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/girl-in-the-machine/ or from the Box Office (02) 8839 3399. 
Discounts available for Riverside Theatres’ Members.
Transaction fees: phone $4.60, web $3.60 and counter $2.60.

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