Surprises: World Premiere Reviews
Surprises (by Clare Brennan)
For his 76th play, Alan Ayckbourn transports his audience to a decades-distant future where children are rare, centenarians are common and time-travel is possible. Human-looking androids are just beginning to interact with people on an emotional level, to their mutual confusion. One of these new models, Jan (out-of-this-world Richard Stacey), puzzles over his hard-shelled, soft-centred lawyer boss (glorious Sarah Parks): "She's uncertain as to the nature of her nature? That's not natural!"
Genre-blending Ayckbourn mixes futuristic hi-tech with farcical comedy into a bitter-sweet romance that, as he says, "reflects the present by extending the trends of today to their logical conclusion". Act I introduces teenage love and time travel; Act II explores adult heartbreak and machines with feelings; Act III combines all of these with the physical, psychical and emotional effects of protracted longevity.
This tightly plotted, multi-faceted interweaving of the messily complex problems of love and ageing is joyously delivered by six actors dizzyingly playing 13 roles. More than almost any other contemporary director, Ayckbourn understands how the movement of the performers through the space of the stage opens up the audience's imagination to its make-believe world. Meanwhile, the practical elements of creation are elegantly effected by designer Michael Holt with witty technical touches, such as the "Hipro" communication device (hovering holograms!) and "avatar collars" (think Second Life plus sexily sensual virtual reality). Ayckbourn's allegorical science fiction delivers serious fun.
(The Observer, 22 July 2012)
Surprises (by Michael Billington)
Alan Ayckbourn has always had an eye to the future, as we know from predictive pieces such as Henceforward... and Communicating Doors. Now, in his 76th play, co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, he indulges his passion for science fiction to the full. While the result has a mad inventiveness, it sometimes feels as if we are watching three one-act plays, on totally different themes, rather than one three-act play.
Ayckbourn starts by asking whether the future, if it can be foreseen, can also be forestalled. Plunging us into a fully automated, intergalactic world, he shows some things remain reassuringly the same - we see 17-year-old Grace defying her rich dad by choosing a rough boyfriend. But, when the time-travelling lover appears from 50 years in the future to reveal how he was bought off by the father, the big question is whether Grace can prevent it happening. Unfortunately the question is no sooner raised than dropped. As so often with sci-fi, ideas also take precedence over character: although there are odd funny lines, such as one about Grace's mum "hurtling round the solar system with a toolbox," we never really care about the people.
Only in the second act does the play joyously take off. The great comic theorist Henri Bergson taught us that human beings are funny when they behave like machines: Ayckbourn reverses that by showing that machines are funny when they behave like humans. In this instance it is an android security guard who is utterly besotted by an outwardly tough 60-year-old female lawyer; and, in a performance recalling Janie Dee's "actoid" in Ayckbourn's 1998 Comic Potential, Richard Stacey is brilliant as the modified android given to sudden peals of hysterical laughter and carefully parroted phrases such as "I concede gracefully" when contradicted by his beloved. Thankfully Stacey reappears in the final act, in which Ayckbourn advances the notion intended to bind the whole evening together: that longevity will have terrifying consequences for love and affairs of the heart.
There are probably more pressing problems confronting society. But Ayckbourn and his technical team, including Michael Holt as designer, show astonishing ingenuity in creating, among many other things, an elliptical device for communicating with holograms. Sarah Parks as the briskly authoritative lawyer, Laura Doddington as a lovelorn PA smitten by deep-sea divers and space pilots, and Ayesha Antoine as the future-fixing Grace also give very lively performances. In the end, however, I feel Ayckbourn's genius resides less in exploring his fears for the fantastic future than in diagnosing the ills of the immediate present.
(The Guardian, 17 July 2012)
Surprises (by Laura Thompson)
There is something rather wonderful about the fact that Alan Ayckbourn’s 76th play - twice as many as Shakespeare, for heavens’ sake – is characterised by a faintly gauche air of experimentalism. It is not new for Ayckbourn to set a play in the future, as he does here. He has explored the concept of “what if?” – his pithy definition of sci-fi - since the late Eighties. Nevertheless Surprises still feels almost improvised, as if Ayckbourn had decided to move his usual cast of anxious suburbanites into a world of time travel and hyper-longevity, stick an android in their midst and see what happens.
The results are variable, theatrically speaking. This is Ayckbourn’s first three-act play since 1972 but, unlike his early masterpieces, Surprises does nothing innovative with that conventional structure. Indeed the first act, in which spoiled daddy’s girl Grace (an assured Ayesha Antoine) plays with time travel in order to control her boyfriend’s life, feels thin. The point of setting it “sometime soon”, as the programme notes have it, seems like not much more than an opportunity for sitcom-style jokes about technology, as when time travel is represented by a people-carrying trolley driven by a camp steward straight out of Hi-De-Hi. Since Ayckbourn also directs (in the round), this must be his choice, but it feels like an easy means to keep the play anchored in familiarity.
Things pick up in the second act. Rather oddly this is thanks to the android character, Jan (a brilliant Richard Stacey), who works in “S and M” – Security and Maintenance – for lawyer Lorraine (the excellent Sarah Parks), with whom Jan is besotted. This leads to perhaps the oddest love scene played in a theatre. And Ayckbourn suddenly shows all his old dramatist’s wiles in the way he makes Jan, the innocent half-human, reveal the humanity – or lack of it – in those around him. Admirably, Ayckbourn is attempting to consider what makes us human in a world where both genes and bodies are increasingly freely manipulated. Yet the people in his future seem not much different from those of today: obsessed with ageing, in need of love, in the end preferring reality to its virtual avatar. Whether this is evidence of natural optimism, or of a playwright gravitating naturally towards his home territory, it is hard to say.
(Daily Telegraph, 18 July 2012)
A Gentle Fumble Into The Future (by Libby Purves)
Lovesick teenager Grace is rowing with her Dad. He wishes she’d talk to her mother but Ma is away on Mars, a career woman who ‘hurtles around the solar system with a toolbox’ maintaining air conditioning systems. meanwhile, Jan, a polite corporate android in a shiny Simon Dee wig is grappling with the puzzling world of human emotions, particularly those of a high achieving boss in the throes of divorcing a no good husband, ‘a failed daytime stand-up TV chef-edian.’
Madam is upset. ‘She is’, says the android carefully, ‘in the washroom undergoing contradictions.”
This lady, watching Alan Ayckbourn’s 76th play plunge back into sci-fi territory is undergoing contradictions too. As audience, I chortle along loving the jokes, surfing the mischievous spirit of entertainment. As a critic I am forced to admit that this is a somewhat scrappy undercooked bit of work, its flow broken awkwardly by two intervals. By Ayckbourn standards it is not classic. Though to be fair, if someone new had written it, we’d go ‘Wow!’
Half a dozen futuristic notions are explored, none very thoroughly. Human beings live to 180, which outs a strain on marriages. Women are tending to out-achieve their men. A teenager is fitted with an implanted IVM, an ‘internal verbal moderator’ which makes her wince whenever she tries to utter a swear word. There is time-travel involved. And artificial intelligence. And a Second Life style avatar love affair, presided over by a jerkily cartoon tarty barmaid.
Plenty of threads, social and philosophical, none pulled tight. Yet Ayckbourn’s sharp, observant humanity bubbles through parental plots, youthful rebellion, middle-aged marital disillusion (even for the poor robot).
And there are marvellous performances, not least from Ayesha Antoine as the teenage Grace, sparky and charming and spoilt. Richard Stacey’s almost human android is a piece of performing brilliance and Sarah Parks’s tough-yet-troubled lawyer is perfection.
The designer Michael Holt has great fun with surprising sci-fi props (which will migrate to the co-producing house in Chichester for a spell before its autumn return here), and the lightly futuristic costumes. No Bacofoil suits or antennae here, just odd lapel facings on the men, and the all-too-likely probability that teenage girls in 2062 will still be wearing baggy T-shirts over shiny leggings.
Not to mention the prediction that lady lawyers will readopt the hideous peplum waist, like a triceratops frill on their subfusc suits. That could happen. Be very afraid.
(The Times, 18 July 2012)
Surprises (by Jonathan Brown)
Although he had toyed with the idea before, Alan Ayckbourn did not feel ready to bring science fiction fully into his work until his 34th play. A quarter of a century later and now on his 76th play, Surprises, the writer is a well-established exponent of the form.
Sci-fi has a unique power to divide audiences – hence Ayckbourn’s previous caution despite a lifelong love affair with writers such as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick. But this new play is more Blake’s 7 than Blade Runner with a rather unconvincing array of “futuristic” clothes and clunky gadgets (including a couple of iPads) somewhat undermining the potential menace of the deeper themes.
It is really all about relationships and how to survive them – a “story with its head in the future but its heart in the past”, says the writer.
The three-act plot sees us whizzed from some future date where spoilt little rich girl Grace played by Ayesha Antoine, argues with her adoring yet controlling father over whether she can continue seeing an unsuitable boyfriend.
From there we are propelled to a world 50 years hence where, thanks to the advances of medical science, people can live for double their current life spans. Yet while the physical parts can be replaced and upgraded what becomes of us emotionally? And where does fragile short-lived love come into all this?
It’s hard enough for many of us to stay married even for our current extended spans. What happens when this is stretched even further into the distance? Life is meant to be a surprise, but time-travelling and medical advances take this element of the unexpected away.
How many holidays? How many relationships can we endure? So wonders Grace’s dad Franklin, aged 120, played with world-weary ennui by Bill Champion. But it is not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of good laughs in this piece, which was commissioned as part of the London 2012 Festival. Most of them are courtesy of the androids.
And there is a terribly tender scene at the end of act two when Sarah Parks’s cougar solicitor Lorraine cries as she dances with cackling robot Jan60 – two wildly incompatible lovers seeking solace where they can.
(The Independent, 20 July 2012)
Surprises (by Kevin Berry)
We are living longer, but can love live longer? This is a key theme in Alan Ayckbourn’s future-set 76th play Surprises. Bill Champion’s mega-successful businessman Franklin is 120 years old. He may live another 60 years, but wonders, “Were we designed to love for that length of time?”. He has had many of his body parts replaced and wonders to what extent he is still human.
That latter thought brings in Franklin’s uptight lawyer, played by Sarah Parks. She falls for an android, played with shrieks of wildly inappropriate laughter by Richard Stacey, who has been programmed to have emotions and tell mild fibs.
Surprises continues Ayckbourn’s fascination with science fiction, or more correctly future fiction. This was first seen in Ayckbourn’s family plays, such as Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays, and has crept into his adult work, such as Communicating Doors. The future setting is cleverly done and explained by a handful of wry observations.
The play begins with Ayesha Antoine’s teenager Grace receiving a visitor from 50 years hence. It is her husband, played by the excellent Ben Porter. He is about to have an important meeting, in her time, and wants her to interfere. Grace’s eventual conclusion is that life should not be planned, but should have surprises. The ever-watchable Antoine is not seen in the second of the play’s three acts, which is a mounting disappointment.
Michael Holt’s flashing, humming and swishing set could have been designed by the boffins at James Dyson’s company - it is fit for both narrative purpose and fun.
(The Stage, 19 July 2012)
Surprises (by Ron Simpson)
It seems redundant to call an Alan Ayckbourn play Surprises – these are guaranteed with the Scarborough Master. In this play, set 50 years in the future and a further 50 beyond that, the surprises come in many forms: the technological developments, the plot twists, the relationships. However, they tend to be ingenious rather than inspired. Before seeing the play, I got into a discussion about how many plays you would have to include in “The Best of Ayckbourn”. The number, we decided, is remarkably high from all phases of his career; Surprises doesn’t belong there, but it is an interesting play, with some bursts of irresistible comedy and a fresh take on science fiction.
The opening is a futuristic version of a familiar scene: rich father warns spoiled teenage daughter off unsuitable fiancé (a labourer) and she resists. The futuristic element initially comes in the form of imaginative gadgetry, notably the control systems Franklin imposes on daughter Grace: automatic servants will only respond if she uses “Please” and every obscenity she uses is cut short by a sudden shock. Science fiction as a serious driver of the plot comes when her fiancé, about to be bought off by her father, appears, apparently rich and successful, from 50 years in the future. If they reverse the decision on her father’s offer, what effect will it have? Can the future be changed when it’s already the past?
This is Ayckbourn and the answers are not the obvious ones. The final, rather moving scene (in a play of no great emotional warmth) involves a totally unexpected bringing together of characters. The play also takes a cool look at love in a time when people live to be 150: how long can love last?
An excellent cast of six doubles parts with zest, only Bill Champion’s Franklin, dominating by understatement, remaining constant throughout. Leaving aside the eccentric or caricatured bit parts that all have fun with, Ayesha Antoine’s expressive, self-obsessed Grace, Sarah Parks’ ultra-efficient, emotionally tortured lawyer and Laura Doddington’s bright, compulsively loquacious, desperately lonely secretary convince and amuse – and all age most effectively, bearing in mind that 80 is the new 40! Titus, the unsuitable suitor, is an ambiguous character and Ben Porter’s reading gains depth as the play progresses. Richard Stacey gratefully accepts the gift of the part of Jan, the android with social and emotional modifications, poised between feeling and non-feeling, exploring the boundaries of literalness and revealing a terrifying range of inappropriate laughs.
Thanks to designer Michael Holt and technical manager Paul Stear futuristic props do great service both as set dressing and as key features in the plot, notably the Hipro, a sort of phone call to a hologram, used cleverly, if perhaps too frequently.
(whatsonstage.com, 19 July 2012)
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