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Electric Rosary at the Royal Exchange Theatre

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Iím a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83 My debut poetry pamphlet is available at wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
Event: -
Force of habit
With robot carers and bar staff already a reality, not to mention driverless cars and automated apologies for cancelled trains, the play debuting at the Royal Exchange is certainly topical.

Tim Foley's 2017 Bruntwood Prize winner is set at the dwindling St Grace's Convent. Only the charming but challenging Theresa (Saroja-Lily Ratnavel) has the future on her side.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Bruntwood Prize, comedy, Breffni Holahan
Breffni Holahan (Mary) & Cast. Image Helen Murray.


Sister Constance (Olwen May) is sardonic at best and cruel at worst. She is resentful towards the pragmatic but uncharismatic Elizabeth (Jo Mousley), for being appointed as Acting Mother Superior.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Bruntwood Prize, comedy, Breffni Holahan, Jo Mousley, Saroja-Lily Ratnavel, Olwen May
Jo Mousley (Elizabeth) & Olwen May (Constance). Image Helen Murray.


Into this charged atmosphere comes a council-funded robot, Mary, (Breffni Holahan). She is a bit like an Alexa machine that can also mop the floor.

Electric Rosary is billed as a comedy and there are laughs as the nuns negotiate Mary's combination of servility, information downloads, bluntness and occasional jokes. Breffni Holahan's sustained patterns of gestures and speech, along with her metallic sheen, add to Mary's unnerving presence.

She acts as a confidante to who the characters can divulge private thoughts to, in a similar way to a soliloquy. "If you can't tell me the truth, maybe you can tell her," Elizabeth says to Constance at one point.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Bruntwood Prize, comedy, Breffni Holahan, Jo Mousley, Saroja-Lily Ratnavel
Saroja-Lily Ratnavel (Theresa). Image Helen Murray.


Mary struggles to understand abstract and spiritual concepts. When Constance talks of her desire to be nearer to her God, Mary asks if her God is in Ecuador, because that is where the nuns are planning to go.

To the industrious Philippa (Suzette Llewellyn), the new arrival is a threat who could take away her daily tasks and sense of purpose. "I can't just stop like that. That's not how I'm wired."

This anxiety about job security is echoed by the mob of protesting Luddites outside the convent who get louder and closer as the drama unfolds.

The action could have powered forwards to full-throttle farce but instead, it focuses on the philosophical dilemma of what makes robots different from humans. As Mary starts seeing visions of a mysterious child (Yandass Ndlovu), the clear divides of the first half start to blur.

Tim Foley's play, directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart, puts an entertaining but thoughtful spin on a conundrum explored in other ways by plays like Breaking the Code. It suggests that without humans, robots are redundant but that, in the absence of a real person, humans will invest meaning and emotion in robot companions.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Bruntwood Prize, comedy, Breffni Holahan, Jo Mousley
Jo Mousley (Elizabeth) & Breffni Holahan (Mary). Image Helen Murray.


Automatons can relieve us of chores but they can't take away our duty to or reliance on others or our appetite for purpose and spiritual enquiry.

That said, I found myself zoning out at some of the supposedly most dramatic scenes towards the end. Given that the play is 2 hours, 40 minutes (including a 20-minute interval) I felt that I had not learnt enough about the characters to invest enough in their vulnerable situation or their plans to move to South America.

Tim Foley has a bright future as a dramatist ahead of him but too much of the tension seemed to come from Simisola Lucia Majekodunmi's lighting design and Anna Clock's sound design, rather than characters sparking off each other.

The 2022 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting is open for entries until 6 June.

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Why? A chance to see Bruntwood Prize-winning play that is entertaining and thought-provoking
When: 23 April - 14 May
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester, M2 7DH
Cost: Standard Tickets from £10 - £37.
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