Kasia Fallan

Three things struck me about The Way to San Francisco (written by Cerian Craske and directed by Roma Ellis) within the first five minutes after Andy – a newly sentient AI played by Val Gladkova – is brought online at the start of the play. The first is that this was a play with a queer allegory woven into the text, brought out in this production. The second was that the socio-economic commentary the play is engaged with would be articulated through a very definite and, at times blunt, morality. The third was that Gladkova themself seemed to inhabit the stage as the embodiment of a troubled AI wonderfully, animating their movements with a discomfort and newness that fitted the newly ‘born’ character.

Though Gladkova was later joined on stage by their creator Beatrice (Ashna Ahmad), who subsequently transitions between the digital world of the stage and ‘reality’ (which the audience only hear through the sound system), it is their stage presence which drove the play. It was their tortured physicality which gave the moments of tension their impact, and their ability to play the wise yet naive character which gave the play its most incisive moments. When both were on stage, Beatrice moved around upstage closer to the door, while Andy remained rooted downstage, often facing the audience. This was presumably partially a result of the need for Covid-regulation distancing, but did also serve to emphasise that the narrative belonged to Andy, and aided Gladkova in making key emotional moments of connection with the audience. The distancing and the concomitant directorial decision to have both Beatrice and Andy facing out for much of the play had both advantages and disadvantages. Though it made the moments and conversations in which they faced each other more impactful, it also dampened the chemistry between the two actors, which occasionally felt lost amid large blocks of narrative exposition. The strongest moments between Beatrice and Andy were the ones in which the rush of the plot was forgotten, and the characters allowed to emerge in the company of one another in less action based, forward moving dialogue.

“Gladkova themself seemed to inhabit the stage as the embodiment of a troubled AI wonderfully”

The looming corporate boogeyman was Mike (Daniel Ellis), only ever heard not seen, but the definite antagonist of a play which may not have needed one. Mike felt less a character in his own right and more of a caricature of a modern top-hatted villain, concerned only with the bottom line. This is not so much to do with the character in isolation from the rest of the play or any reflection on the actor, but is symptomatic of the sometimes blunt way with which ethical issues about AI were dealt. While this is definitely an area of life which theatre should absolutely be engaging with, the sledgehammer villainy of Mike – which of course is inevitably vanquished – felt like a disservice to the subtleties The Way to San Francisco touched upon. These were better explored elsewhere such as in Beatrice’s reflections on the responsibility of creators to their creation – Ahmad’s finest moment, and a nice inversion of the cold cruel scientist archetype descended from Victor Frankenstein who cares nothing and feels no responsibility for their own creation.

“The queer allegory, self-consciously veiled very thinly, was perhaps the strongest thematic element”

A word of praise or several ought to be given to technical team; Anne-Marie Woodrow’s sound design and Annabelle York’s lighting gave the production – challenged by it was with Covid distancing requirements (both on stage and with a sparse audience) – much aid. The sound facilitated Andy’s (and the audience’s) connection to the ‘real’ world, while the lighting’s descent into chaos along with Andy’s state of mind at several points in the play was well executed.


Mountain View

Diary of a Playwright: A Shakespearean Tragedy

The Way To San Francisco did not provoke any new and radical ideas or thoughts, but it did make me feel a great deal, both because of the quality of the acting, and the natural queerness of the play. The queer allegory, self-consciously veiled very thinly, was perhaps the strongest thematic element of The Way to San Francisco. Explored in Andy’s discussion of pronouns with Beatrice, and facilitated by the fact they were played by a non-binary actor, it did not feel as forced as the other ‘messages’ of the play. That the queerness of the play simply ‘was’ – rather than being tacked onto the side – is heartening to see, and very praiseworthy.