Review: My Robot Heart by Molly Naylor
– reviewed by James Webster –
Written and perform by Molly Naylor, with musical backing from folk-duo The Middle Ones, this slice of musical storytelling was tightly written, warmly performed and full of thoughtful fun.
The story’s meta-narrative was cleverly constructed, presenting both an intricately interwoven fictional story of three interconnected characters, and giving us the true story behind the story, a kind of origin, the tale of heartbreak and robots that Naylor wrote this show to explain. We thus got some fascinating facts about Japanese experiments into creating a robot called ‘Kenji’ who could imitate the behaviour of love (an idea very similar to a fantastic manga and tv show called Absolute Boyfriend that I heartily recommend), coupled with Naylor’s own sense of emotional frustration at wanting more than a partner who “ticks as many boxes as possible”. It’s both an intriguing backdrop to the show and an overarching metaphor for her story and it works fabulously well.
Her performance style was warm and engaging, always quick with a joke and an amusing turn of phrase. She was especially good when crafting analogies that are equal parts absurdly funny, poetic and appropriate, or when capturing life’s little ridiculosities in relatable and inventive turns of phrase. Indeed, in each of her three characters’ stories there was something intensely recognisable; those little moments that are incredibly simple, but oh-so-powerful and very human, spine-tinglingly distilled by Naylor’s evocative storytelling. Whether it’s the emotional significance of what kind of wardrobe you own, the paralysing fear of public speaking, or the caustic politics of school popularity, each strand of the story gave intelligent and amusing insights into the stages and minutiae of life.
As well as these myriad little moments, the show also throws up some big and emotional movie-style moments. A manic late-night drive to nowhere and subsequent return, a sudden, unexpected public food fight, or late-night epiphanies, but these moments often confound expectations, never giving the characters what they think they want. As such, those big moments serve as a great contrast to the little ones, as the characters who search for big emotional breakthroughs find them in quietly heartbreaking moments of emotional stillness, while the character who simply wants to fit in finds himself in a charmingly warm and cinematic climax. All of which is supported by the great music of the Middles Ones, whose songs surge up warmly behind the narrative at some points, while stuttering into a fragile silence at others.
It’s not perfect, the music at times isn’t fully integrated into the performances, and it occasionally distracts from the story instead of supplementing it. The stories, too, could be more completely woven together, with the narrative sometimes becoming a tad disjointed (with one story coming to an especially early end, which was unfortunate given how lovably absorbing it was). Still, these minor quibbles don’t detract from the show’s warm and tear-teasing heart.
It seems at the heart of the story is the conflict between societal pressure and individual desire, between the way people think they’re supposed to act and what they actually want. Naylor is very astute in summoning the spirit of those insidious pressures that make her characters feel their desires are abnormal, dubbing the kind of social plan where you meet someone you don’t actively hate and settle down to marry them “the protocol”, while the wish to follow your own desires is oddly personified in the pleasantly polyamorous figures of Tilda Swinton (who knew?). This is all mixed together with a playful performance, some fun theatricality and nice internal references (repeated mentions of wardrobes and Take That creating effective recurring motifs).
This wonderful show creates a patchwork map of lovely little life anecdotes; a collage made of myriad moments that are intensely recognisable, often hilarious, and utterly insightful. Naylor answers her own questions about love and fear in entertaining and super-lovely fashion, celebrating both fear and choice, and allowing for both love’s messiness and its erratic wonders.
Molly Naylor’s ‘My Robot Heart’ is in Oxford for one more performances tonight at the Burton Taylor Studio, before moving on to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory in July. It’s well worth seeing.