Roomba Nation | Hurrah Hurrah

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Image by Stephen Reinhardt

Roomba Nation is a thought experiment about the meeting place of modern technology, represented by the Roomba, and clowning in the setting of a clinical farce. Hurrah Hurrah is looking to explore the emotional unrest and dis-ease technological advancement induces for those who need a miracle.

It’s difficult to summarise the plot as it doesn’t go far past the premise: Pippie (Alison Bennett) is undergoing treatment in a Swedish facility with Doc (Kate Walder) and her assistant, Nursie (Nick O’Regan). The treatments are absurd and seem to make Pippie much sicker throughout the stages. Nothing seems to exist outside of the realm of the treatment room including any other relationships, worlds, motivations, pasts. Doc is a parody of a modern medical researcher hoping for the next big discovery that will launch her career and brand of treatment. There is a brief discussion about the sacrifice of individuals who contribute to clinical trials in terms of the value of their results, or lack thereof, but it’s ill supported by the rest of the text.

Clowning is a beautiful genre of performance that doesn’t get the stage-time it deserves in Sydney. The three collaborators and performers also have impressive resumes in clowning and physical theatre. What Roomba Nation lacks as a production is the balance necessary between drama and comedy, the physical and the emotional. The humour of this production may have worked in another space but against the backdrop of a sinisterly ill and mistreated woman, the jokes just don’t fly. Pippie’s illness, her history, and her place in the world and in this clinic are left unexplained as she is driven further towards her death, belatedly revealed to be in pursuit of a cure. A farce requires a particular measure of suspension of disbelief but that doesn’t include the absence of understanding who these characters are, what they’re doing here, and why.

O’Regan is charming and gentle as Nursie, who brings warmth to Pippie’s strange new location. He attempts genuine connection and feeling through memories of fishing and his couch tool for emotional vulnerability. The character of Nursie is charged with straddling both the comic relief character when Pippie is under high stress and the voice of reason when Doc wishes to push on. They’re two conflicting character roles that Nursie valiantly tries to reconcile but their objectives differ too strongly for clean characterisation. Pippie seems a floppy organic mess compared to the primness of the Swedish medical professionals. Her direction attempts child-like innocence but her infrequent expressions of touching human emotion are unearned after the empty characterisation and conversations she is built on. This feeling of distance between story and character leaves the moments of attempted connection between Pippie and Nursie hollow and ineffectual, even when Nursie’s tenderness was beautiful to watch, it didn’t mean anything in the world the production created.

There is such an emphasis in this production on physicality and comedic gags that the inner worlds of the characters are neglected. They instead move across the stage as somewhat hollow puppets looking for any available laugh, whether or not it progresses the story. Perhaps more focus on the heart and the why of this story and these characters would have substantiated their circumstances and given life to this production.

The design, by Duncan Maurice, could be described as clinical-lite: we’re surrounded by curtains but they’re blue lace, the doctors are in uniform but it’s exaggerated like children’s television, there are robots but they’re sequinned. It’s a very clear visual representation of the tone the production team was going for by mixing farce and clowning with a clinical drama. Unfortunately, the contrasting white and blue comes off as childish on top of the physical theatre and undercuts the sincerity of quieter moments. The sound and lighting design, by Tegan Nicholls and Alex Torney, works in the opposite way: turning the space into an ethereal, dream-scape with twinkly fairy bells that oddly contrasts with the frequent gags. It’s clear what each design element was trying to do but, like the narrative, the two genres are oddly matched and contrast rather than compliment each other.

For a production interested in the integration of modern technology, there is very little technology in this show. The three robots, modelled after Roombas, are the “care-bots” designed to take over as in-home caretakers for the sick or in-need. But they feature very little in the narrative except as a remote-controlled delivery service. Which is a shame, especially after the opening duet dance between Pippie and a robot that so instantly endeared the little creatures to the audience. The final production seems far more interested in investigating hope, dreams, and the way the medical industry prays on people’s desperation, rather than the role technology plays in that.

Roomba Nation strives both towards a clowning comedy with sweet and charming characters and a critical investigation of the medical technology industry but doesn’t substantially achieve either end. This is a lite, quiet, slow production that will keep you entertained if you don’t look too deeply into the details.

Roomba Nation is running at Old 505 Theatre from July 6th – 21st.

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