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Autopilot evaluation – brain-teasing drama stuffed with sharp turns | Edinburgh pageant 2022


As we freewheel into the era of the self-driving car, we also go headlong into a set of moral dilemmas. For as long as there is the possibility of an accident, whose safety should the system prioritise – pedestrian or passenger? Should it depend on the age, number and profile of those involved? Who gets to program the computers and how certain are the instructions?

Playwright Ben Norris takes this as a metaphor for uncertainty in general. All it takes is a line of code to affect the behaviour of a vehicle, just as all it takes is a momentary decision to determine how our lives pan out.

He imagines a relationship in all its contradictory permutations, going backwards and forwards through its course. Rowan (Cassie Bradley) is a geospatial engineer, who has fought hard for a career that goes from maps to motor cars. Nic (Hannah van der Westhuysen) is a freelance illustrator, whose anticapitalist lifestyle belies a privileged past. They are at once fascinated and infuriated by each other’s values.

In a series of fractured scenes, snapping sharply from one to the next in Sean Linnen’s icy cool production for Bill’s Mother, the actors have expert control over the playwright’s quickfire exchanges, turning on a sixpence from intimate to frosty as the possibilities play out. They make a tight and convincing team.

But for all the briskness of the writing and fluidity of the staging beneath Holly Ellis’s cleverly simple lighting design, Autopilot is tricksy in its structure and oblique in its coding analogy. It feels less like a full-blooded drama than a brain-teaser we are invited to crack.

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