Emme Hoy’s play depicts a sinister experiment.
Duncan and Marlow are scientists. They are also lovers of one year’s standing. Their experimental subjects are Wells and Rachel.
Hoy gives us tantalisingly little to go on and so we speculate. Are Wells and Rachel prisoners? Were they created in the laboratory? Are they even human?
All we know for sure is that Wells and Rachel are blank slates: emotionally and socially unformed; ignorant of the outside world.
Duncan (Tel Benjamin) and Marlow (Jennifer Rani) take a carrot and stick approach to their work, sometimes coaxing their charges, sometimes bullying them.
Marlow, for example, patiently teaches Wells (Eddie Orton) and Rachel (Sarah Meacham) how to converse with rote pleasantries and how to read basic facial expressions.
Duncan instructs them in the intricacies of the Macarena, though how much of this is really about the importance of physical coordination and how much is for his own gently sadistic pleasure is hard to gauge.
But Wells and Rachel are developing quickly and in unexpected ways. The innate and the primal begin to assert an influence. Soon, Duncan and Marlow’s scientific detachment and experimental rigour – questionable from the start – starts to break down.
Hoy’s play echoes Marivaux’s 18th century tragi-comedy La Dispute and the story of the mysterious foundling Kaspar Hauser. Fans of Stranger Things may experience flashbacks to the creepy Hawkins lab.
Deliberate ambiguity combines with uniformity of tone to make Extinction of the Learned Response seem a little longer than it is (80 minutes), but deep blackouts between short scenes and Ben Pierpoint’s ominous soundtrack provide the necessary punctuation.
Overall, director Carissa Licciardello’s production (designed by Ella Butler, lit by Kelsey Lee) is cool-toned, atmospheric and tightly made.
The promise of some kind of revolt proves gripping and the performances are strong. Meacham is particularly compelling as Rachel gets to grips with her emerging sense of self.