In a world premiere performance at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn brings us Surprises – a tale of love stories, the many twists and turns of life, and the ever-changing relationships we encounter. With one major difference – it’s the future, the far and distant future, a world of time travel, android security men, and virtual dating worlds.
The stage design by Michael Holt immediately makes you realise that you’re watching something rather out of the ordinary – bedroom walls in square panels showing just a few dashed of colour, transparent plastic chairs and tables indicative of the pseudo-future of sci-fi, and numerous LED lights spark red, green, and blue and appropriate moments. All these elements, though not necessarily entirely unused before, created a believable setting for Ayckbourn’s play, and Holt was able to engage with future technologies without seeming too far-fetched or wistful.
A fairly small cast enabled a fairly complex story line to run across three hours (with two intervals) without the complications of too many people to organise, although recorded messages by the same actors did become rather distracting every now and then. Bill Champion played Franklin with honesty and integrity, a very real father and sympathetic despite his rather sneaky way of preventing his daughter’s marriage. Something I would criticise was the age-confusion – despite declaring “nowadays, people live to 180!” – having actors play 70-year olds whilst not looking over 40 (I know, I flatter!) was rather frustrating, as was Ayesha Antoine portraying a 16-year old Grace. Though these things cannot always be avoided, it can prove rather odd to watch.
However, Richard Stacey completely stole the show for me. Initially on stage as the Time Travel ‘bubble’ operator, he came into his own after the first interval as the android Jan, the robotic security and maintenance man on the 60th floor of lawyers’ offices. With such brilliant characterisation of what is essentially a non-human part, he was part C-3PO, part Pinocchio. As Ayckbourn himself said in an interview with Simon Murgatroyd, robots are “quite vulnerable, they’re like children”, and Stacey was both eloquent and innocent with his jolting mannerisms and quirky speech patterns.
Closely following Stacey in my books as the best on stage was Laura Doddington, the brilliant PA Sylvia – with great restraint, her bubbling energy seeped out as the efficient yet hurting assistant, longing for something more, but uncomplainingly stuck where she is. And shifting 50 years after the second interval, she had sunk into resignation, still with a tired smile on her face.
Although the layered dialogue was occasionally more of a distraction than an effect, Surprises reminds us of the longevity of love, the trials and sacrifices one makes, and the suggestion that, at the end of the day, whether it’s 2013 or 2063, people are still people. Ayckbourn’s telling insight into human affection leaves you sighing with both sadness and nostalgia for things yet to be.