The Forecast is a strange, strange play – but it's that kind of strangeness which goes from being perplexing, to making a kind of sense, to suddenly seeming the most natural thing in the world. It's performed by four women who look like they're hanging in mid-air; mounted on wheeled platforms and thrust into over-size white dresses, their diverse identities are all but stripped away. But as the play shows us, the power of human empathy is far harder to disguise.
The women are, we discover, "Garden Girls": a near-future personal assistant system, a bit like Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa. Just like their real-life electronic counterparts, they can play music, remember a shopping list, or (as the title suggests) read out the weather forecast. But in this dystopian vision of the future, these aren't electronic gadgets, but living human beings… paid a pittance of a wage to serve an unbreakable contract, forever at the command of the rich homeowners whose gardens they adorn.
It's a genius concept: extreme enough to prove a point, but close enough to the gizmos we already have in our homes to seem disturbingly real. And the first part of the play focusses firmly on real-life issues too, with exploitative contracts, unequal pay, and the treatment of migrants all featuring in the dialogue. The Forecast may not make any truly ground-breaking observations, but by carrying these subjects to a still-credible extreme, it throws the issues into sharp relief in a way that no quantity of newsprint ever can.
Over time, though, the plot morphs into something a little different: a discussion of the rights of the individual, and what it truly means to be free. One crucial point – that the women are permanently linked together – isn't made as clearly as it could be, and parts of the storyline make a whole load more sense once you've realised that's what's going on. But the premise clears the way for a tangle of conflicting emotions, as some women yearn to flee their post and others feel an equally powerful drive to stay.
Along the way, there's plenty of humour, a little bit of shadow-puppetry, and some delightful harmony singing. There are some powerful moments too: each of the women has a turn in the spotlight, explaining the very different forces that have brought them here. And there is, I think, a quiet but insistent clarion call – a reminder to do things for each other, not just for those who pay.
In the end then, The Forecast transcends its oddball concept. The story it tells is affecting; the truths it explores are powerful, and real.