First there was Siri. Then came Alexa. And now, there’s Billy Bowtie – a dapper humanoid robotic assistant – charming and unthreatening, and “optimised for heterosexual females aged 28-45”. We’re here for the unveiling of the first Billy Bowtie prototype, hosted by an unseen woman who says she’s excited by the technology but is clearly most interested in how much money it might bring in. But Billy’s robot brain has been programmed with the hopes, dreams and fantasies of real gay men… and as his artificial intelligence works through that source material, some less “palatable” truths and feelings start to emerge.
Stephen Brower plays Billy Bowtie, and he has the robotic persona spot on. His movements are a little too placed to seem natural, his words are just slightly mistimed; if you close your eyes, you really could be listening to Siri or Alexa. It doesn’t get in the way of enjoyment or empathy, but it’s a continual reminder of the central conceit. And the robot’s process of self-discovery is credible, too, showing not a machine that magically becomes human, but an evolving algorithm doing its best to adapt to an unspoken but inviolable set of “constraints”.
It’s those constraints that drive both the comedy, and the show’s much darker undertone. Every now and then, Billy oversteps the line – sometimes by talking about drugs or religion, sometimes by approaching a much earthier theme. The consequences when he does range from the humorously innocuous (think of the improv game Should Have Said) to the outright ominous, with echoes of a dystopian future where having your own ideas is an almost seditious “glitch”.
As it turns out, Billy’s hardware can be reprogrammed with numerous personalities. All of them are gay, and all of them are stereotyped: the bitchy one, the dramatic one and the flirty one, for example. There’s a subtext to all this, about the kinds of gay characters it’s “palatable” to present in a West End or Broadway show – they can be risqué, sure, as long as they seem like safely-contained exceptions to a heteronormative world.
It’s a thought-provoking point, and this is a clever way to explore it, but I wonder if it comes through as clearly as it deserves to; with so many science-fiction tropes mixed in, that core message risks being diluted. On a simpler level, though – as a satire on the limits of acceptance – Palatable Gay Robot unambiguously succeeds. It’s well-conceived, well-delivered, and wears its sophisticated premise remarkably lightly. The humour is constant, and palatable indeed… but some uncomfortable realities still come through.