By Ella McKeown
As I walked into the auditorium of the York Theatre Royal, serenaded by the mellow electric guitars, the stage aglow with fairy lights, I instantly felt cool. You and I, a new musical created by the up-and-coming theatre company Colla Voce, had a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, winning the Cameron Mackintosh Award 2018. I was excited.
An isolated young woman, Francesca Kingsley (played by Lindsay Manion) is sharing a flat with two self-obsessed housemates when a package arrives containing Robert, a highly sophisticated piece of artificial intelligence created by Fran’s sister Alice. From here the story takes off as Fran begins to bond with this machine, played beautifully by Laurence Hunt with impeccable comedic timing and perfect physicalisation. As the bond with Rob grows, Fran starts to come out of her shell but still remains mainly a reclusive, but this changes when the love interest of the play, Ian (Will Taylor) arrives.
Although the chemistry between Manion and Taylor was lovely to watch, we have seen love stories time and time again onstage. What really grabbed my attention was the relationship between Fran and Robert, watching both develop together and watching their humanity grow, despite Robert being a machine and therefore supposedly devoid of any emotion. In a time where technology is such an undeniably significant part of our everyday lives, the question of the power of artificial intelligence is a prominent one and makes us question what it is to be human. Being presented with a robot as a friend both allowed a brilliantly comedic narrative, but also an examination of the posthuman narrative, where the line between humanity and technology is blurred, therefore forcing us to re-evaluate our identity and place in the world. The fact that a robot could help transform Fran’s view of the world also intrigued me. Near the end of the performance, Robert says, ‘So much about humanity is beautiful and fascinating’, suggesting that despite being a machine, he desires and appreciates beauty, and understands humanity enough to want to be part of it.
This, sadly, was as far as I felt the musical went in exploring such a fascinating topic. These ideas got overlooked as the audience had to keep up with such a wide variety of narrative, themes and big ideas. It felt like a beautiful concoction of music, comedy and sadness that wasn’t quite allowed to grow to its full potential. Moments that I wanted to bask in were cut short. Watching Fran battle with her confidence whilst also educating a robot, whilst also struggling with inconsiderate flatmates, whilst also writing music, whilst also examining the relationship with her sister, whilst also falling in love with Ian, whilst also finding herself… it felt too much to cover in just over an hour.
However, I have great admiration for their ambition and artistic execution as actors and performers. The performance as a whole felt like a piece of gig theatre and despite the large auditorium, the performance felt intimate, poignant, funny and musically beautiful. Cara Withers had an amazing range as a multi-roller, never failing to make the audience laugh with her intricate caricatures and perfect timing, and yet still managing to pull on the heart-strings with her more moving moments as Alice. Manion’s voice was stunning and managed to carry such a wealth of emotion and power and her character was immediately recognisable and endearing.
The music (cleverly directed and written by Cordelia O’Driscoll – definitely one to watch out for) carefully and effectively underscored this tale, supporting the actors and their dulcet tones. It was soulful and raw, with a folky feel that elevated the whole performance above the typical West End, flashy musical scene. It didn’t feel as though the music was plonked wherever; its placing had meaning beyond just what sounded nice. The most poignant moment of the whole piece for me had to be the moment where Fran and her sister Alice sing together: the combination of stillness onstage and the delicate lyrical melody had me shed a tear.
Overall, You and I provided me with great entertainment for a freezing Monday night in York. I left the theatre feeling uplifted and warm. I am very excited to see what Colla Voce has up their sleeve next – they should all be very proud of what they have achieved.