‘Dinner with Aurora’, New Writing Festival: AI at a party makes for a triumphant production

Lee Simmond’s new writing play, Dinner With Aurora, has everything you could want from a student play – a beautiful set, housing a powerful script, brought to life by excellent actors. But Dinner With Aurora goes one step above this – it also has a powerful message. The twist at the end is in equal parts unexpected and wonderful.

The premise of the play is greatly topical for 2018 – two families come together for a dinner party, ahead of their children’s wedding a few days later. The modern twist? The dinner guests are also in the company of Aurora, a malicious AI, whose sassy interjections and unwanted comments provide the driving force of the narrative, as a series of revelations come out that threaten to undo the careful scene that Damian and Mona, the engaged couple, have attempted to create.

A lot of the comedy derives from the uneasy introduction of the two families, as Damian’s ultra-conservative Christian parents meet Mona’s hyper-liberal and non-traditional family. Damian’s parishioner parents are played with panache by Ela Portnoy and Luke Malone, while Mona’s more common, everyman parents are hilariously portrayed by James Akka and Mati Warner. The unexpected star of the show, however, is the perfectly cast Tara Madsen, who plays Aurora, and the directorial decision from Tom Fisher to have a tangible Aurora walking around on stage, rather than a series of voice recordings, pays off excellently, as Aurora’s even-toned responses to the family’s demands of her are accompanied by a series of increasingly sulky facial expressions that help to bring to life the evil-Siri vibe that Simmonds has created.

The comic aspects of the script are balanced out by it’s ultimately serious message, which is movingly epitomised by a monologue from outstanding lead, Isaac Troughton, in the final scene. The unexpected twist provides a cathartic answer to some of the audience’s earlier questions, and brings an element of tragedy to the comic exposition. The final scene, which is poignant for its sense of a family stuck in a regressive, conservative past, is heightened by the ironic presence of Aurora – and it is this blend of technological futurism, with a sense that we are still stuck in a bitter past, that means the ending really packs its punch.

Credit must also go to the technical team, who do wonders to bring the microcosmic world to life. The set design from Rachel Frame is simple but highly effective, and the use of props also creates a strong sense of realism, with the actors genuinely tucking into a real cooked dinner. Thomas Surridge’s lighting design is also greatly effective, and the role of the technical team in bringing this play to life should not be understated.

With the three Aristotelian tragic unities intact, this play has all the makings of a Greek tragedy – but one that incorporates modern quirks to humorous effect. You can see why this script was picked for the OUDS New Writing Festival – it is funny, tragic, and meaningful in equal measure. Topical, pertinent, and sensitively handled, Dinner With Aurora is a triumph.