Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Isla
Mark Lambert and Tina Kellegher in Isla by Tim Price Photo Leon Farrell
Even the best have their bad days. Even the tastiest ingredients don't necessarily go together. A chocolate and raspberry pizza for example. Or Isla by Tim Price. A meditation on old age and isolation during COVID, coupled with cultural shifts in language and technology, Isla touches on a host of worthy themes. Except when the usually superb Mark Lambert falls to his knees as his character screams, “what’s wrong with me?” you want to answer, “what's wrong is you’re being wasted in this cobbled, contrived mess.” Isla proof, were it needed, that the road to hell is lined with good intentions.
Isla is really two stories. Elderly widower and live alone retiree, Roger, is being fobbed off by his daughter Erin just as the COVID lockdown hits. To ease her conscience she stacks his shelves with food and sets up a device called Isla, essentially a knock off Alexa, to assist him should he need it. At seventy four, Roger survives by routine, his interaction with technology rudimentary to say the least. Still, facilitating some nostalgic reflections about Venice whilst relentlessly reminding him to take his meds, Isla becomes a friend to his needs in the absence of anyone around. As Roger’s life becomes a monologue, and Isla’s limits prove wearing, things get said that come back to haunt. Cue the halfway mark and Isla taking a ham-fisted handbrake turn into another play. Or rather a lecture on sexist hate speech. A literal lecture. Replete with images, pie charts and legalised jargon. Whose sole, unimaginative function is to set up what follows as an “I told you so,” self-fulfilling prophesy of abuse. If the return of Erin sparks a sickeningly sweet ending, it’s so contrived you don't buy it. But at least you know you can go home and unplug Alexa, should you have one. Why Roger never did beggars belief, as there’s not enough in Price’s script to make his keeping Isla credible, and plenty to justify its removal. Like everything else in Isla, it’s a weak contrivance. A shame, for Price has moments which can shine, holding his contrivances to account.
Under Davey Kelleher’s heavy handed direction Lambert heaves an inordinate amount of heavy sighs. Roger, exuding all the charm of a swollen blood vessel, struts about like an aneurism about to burst. Lambert’s performance played so high it has very little higher it can go, as if trying to inject some substance into Price’s lacklustre script. Tina Kellegher as Erin shares terrific chemistry with Lambert, their arguments scintillating, their timing exquisite during their energised duologues, reminding you what excellent actors they are as Lambert plumbs some impressive emotional depths. Sarah Madigan as a walk on Garda, and the voice of Isla, is never exactly taxed. Madigan given the thankless task of delivering the leaflet lecture in such a crass and condescending manner it borders on ageist, punctured by okay, okay okay.
Florentia Burcea’s set, Colin Doran’s lights and Ben Keighley’s sound are, by far, the best thing about this production. One that touches on many themes but rarely scratches deeper than the surface. Colostomy bags, the loneliness of the elderly, language affirmations and the abuse of women become themes Isla doesn’t explore so much as exploit. If it's tempting to compare Isla to other AI stories such as Her or Black Mirror, that is to accord it too much respect, and the others not enough. Like Isla, someone should have pulled its plug till it got its necessary updates.
Isla by Tom Price, presented by Verdant Productions, Four Rivers and The Civic Theatre, runs at The Civix Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023, continuing until October 7, transferring to Garter Lane, Waterford, Oct 12,13.