The best concepts in science fiction aren't the showy ones, but the ones which serve as jumping-off points for a believable human story. So it is with The Erebus Project – which ostensibly is about a near-future technology for reading dying people's minds. But in reality, this quiet yet powerful four-hander is about the value of companionship; about how some losses needn't be forever, and how important it is to talk things through before it's time to say goodbye.
Aurora Baker, known as Rory, has just a few days to live. She has issues with her spiky daughter, and obvious history with her doctor Steve (in this play, the niceties of medical ethics don't seem be high on anyone's priority list). Into her life comes Sam, a PhD student with a radical idea: that by monitoring a patient's brainwaves, we might hear their thoughts at the moment of their death and learn whether there really is an afterlife. But to train his software to recognise Rory's speech patterns, he needs to spend time by her hospital bed… and so, an unlikely new friendship forms.
It's Sam who the play pivots around, and actor Cai Dale makes him a loveable delight. He seems to be (as people say nowadays) "somewhere on the spectrum", and there's supportive humour around his unusual manner and occasional literalism. But it's pitched as a difference rather than a defect, and his tendency to say what he thinks proves an asset – the catalyst to untangling the complex web of regrets and misunderstandings which surround the other three characters' lives.
Although Grant Atkins' script doesn't shy from the sadness of Rory's fate, it delivers a hopeful message about making the most of whatever time we have left on Earth. There is a smattering of very funny lines – all the better for the way they often come out of nowhere – and there's obvious humour, too, in the way that Sam's machine sometimes dictates Rory's inner thoughts aloud. But the more sensitive scenes are genuinely moving, and there's a feeling of raw emotional truth in both the writing and the performance.
Not everything is quite so believable, though. Credibility in theatre is a curious thing: I can happily accept a machine that listens to the afterlife, but my brain rebelled against this strange hospital with only one doctor, who in one moment seems to be a cancer specialist and in the next rushes off to perform a caesarean section. Towards the end it gets faintly ludicrous, and it's also completely unnecessary. Atkins could surely come up with more realistic excuses to get specific characters off the stage.
He could also trim some superfluous details at the beginning, and – in the premiere performance I attended – the gentleness of the doctor's manner occasionally dipped into inaudibility. But these are minor quibbles to raise about a well-conceived, funny, and subtly affirming play, which is sure to be one of the highlights of my Fringe. I'm delighted to have seen The Erebus Project; make it your project to see it too.