Surprises: History

Surprises sees Alan Ayckbourn going back to the future for a time-travelling play about love and longevity. It is his 76th play, which premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre during 2012, although it was conceived in a considerably different form during 2011

Behind The Scenes: Alternate Titles
The first complete draft of
Surprises had a different title, Foreseeable Futures whose three acts were named Future Love, Future Wife and Future Dreams.
Early notes for the play have the three acts also called
Timeslip, The Big Birthday and In Your Dreams
Alan was commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre to write his play for 2012 early in 2011 and initially had an idea for a five act play which mirrored the structure of Confusions with five loosely linked stories set in the near future.

At around the same time, plans for the London 2012 Festival were announced as part of the celebrations of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Cultural institutions around the UK were approached about becoming involved in the festival and the Stephen Joseph Theatre - in association with Chichester Festival Theatre - expressed interest in presenting Alan Ayckbourn's new play as well as a revival. At this stage, there was the misconception that extra funding might be available for projects under the London 2012 banner and Alan briefly entertained the idea of staging
Surprises in repertory with a revival of his 13 hander A Small Family Business; it later transpired there was no funding available and the London 2012 association had little definable benefit for companies involved.

Behind The Scenes: Reduced Ambitions
Although little is known about Alan Ayckbourn's original idea for a larger scale and more ambitious play, he has said it would have involved more androids in the plot, including different versions of the same model and identity confusion.
At the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the shape of the play was also about to be materially affected by both by a need to save money and a request by the Artistic Director, Chris Monks, that Alan revive Absurd Person Singular. Alan was not enthusiastic about the idea, but agreed to it understanding the need to contain the costs of the summer season and the necessity of having a well-known, popular play. When Alan sat down to write the play in October 2011, this decision affected the play as the cast had to meet the same casting requirements as Absurd Person Singular and he also chose to mirror the structure with his first three-act play since 1972. Unusually each of the three acts has its own title, The Surprise Husband, The Surprise Birthday and Surprises; only Consuming Passions in the Ayckbourn canon also has names for its acts (whilst each act in Confusions is named, they are individual one act plays. Surprises and Consuming Passions have a continuous narrative).

The play was confirmed to the public on 10 November 2011 when Alan mentioned it during a a pre-show talk of his play
Neighbourhood Watch at the Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere. As had happened on several occasions with previous Ayckbourn plays, despite Alan having himself talked about the play, the SJT did not officially announce nor acknowledge it until long after the news had gone public.

The plays received further exposure when
Neighbourhood Watch transferred to the Brits Off Broadway Festival in New York during November 2011. A BBC news story confirmed the new play's title and during a talk at the 59E59 Theaters and in an interview with Theatermania.com, Alan unveiled the first details of the play noting it was set in the future and was one his plays which 'have their head in the future, but their heart in the past.' This article also confirmed the play would be presented as part of the London 2012 Festival to tie in with the Cultural Olympiad for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Officially, the play had still not been announced by the SJT despite this!

Behind The Scenes: Posters
Unusually, the world premiere production of Surprises has two entirely different posters. The Stephen Joseph Theatre designed the original poster for the production, but Chichester Festival Theatre chose to design their own thematically different and far more striking image.
Perhaps as acknowledgement the original poster was not as appealing as it might have been, the SJT would create a third poster design which was used for the UK tour of the play during 2013.
All the poster designs can be seen on the
Images page.
Surprises marked the first time an Ayckbourn world premiere would be co-produced between two theatres. In this case, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough - where the majority of Ayckbourn world premieres have been held - worked with Chichester Festival Theatre to present both Surprises and Absurd Person Singular; which was celebrating its 40th anniversary that year.

The play had a number of inspirations, not least Alan's interest in longevity and how advances in medical science are rapidly and dramatically prolonging the average person's lifespan. Alan was fascinated about hilo this longevity would affect people's lives and loves. A more unusual inspiration for the playwright though came from a song by the Swedish artist Silje Nergaard called
Dance Me Love, which inspired Alan to write a love story.

Further details about the play later emerged in an interview with the Wall Street Journal when the playwright confirmed Surprises consisted of several intertwined love stories set in a near future with a central theme of longevity and with one character ageing from 16 to 66 years during the course of the play. He also revealed Surprises would feature another of his android characters (as previously notably seen in Henceforward… and Comic Potential) as well as a time-travel element; for those interested in such things, the Android - Jan - marks another step forward in Ayckbourn's androids. With each play, they tend to become slightly more complex and here are fully capable of emotions, if not lying.

Behind The Scenes: Do Androids Dream…
Alan Ayckbourn has frequently talked about his love of science fiction growing up and his fondness for Ridley Scott's sci-fi films, Alien and Blade Runner, both of which predominantly feature androids.
There is a subtle nod to this in
Surprises with a character named Gorman after the character in James Cameron's sequel to Alien, Aliens.
Surprises opened on 17 July 2012 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, before transferring for a sold out season at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August. Playing in repertory with Absurd Person Singular, the play was well-received although arguably suffered slightly when compared to the established Ayckbourn classic. A tour for 2013 of Surprises, re-directed by Alan Ayckbourn for end-stage venues, took place between January and March 2013 and featured the original company.

Surprises was published by Faber in August 2012 as both a softcover and digital edition to coincide with the Chichester Festival Theatre transfer. Whilst in September 2013, it was announced by the UK Theatre Awards that Surprises was one of three plays nominated for Best New Play.

Behind The Scenes: Holgrams
Like the vast majority of Alan Ayckbourn's plays, Surprises was written for performance in-the-round (more specifically, the Stephen Joseph Theatre). The original production made extensive use of fast-traps for the Hipro (3D holographic projector) with the 'hologram' (the actor) rising instantly through the stage-floor. For subsequent transfers and tours of this production, the Hipro prop had to be adjusted to allow actors to step into them from off-stage.
Audience reaction to the play was very mixed and it was generally felt it appealed far more to younger audiences than older ones. As the tour went on, Alan admitted he had personal doubts about the quality of the play and acknowledged that perhaps he had made mistakes with the plot and structure; being too adventurous at a time when something less risk-averse was possibly needed. This he also attributed as a throwback to when he had more ambitious plans for the play, some of which he believed might still have bled through into the final play not helped by the complexity of the play's themes. In one email in archive, he noted: "I kick myself for breaking every rule I ever laid down about playwriting" not least "always keep the story clear, simple and comprehensible."

Despite not being a classic Ayckbourn play,
Surprises still has much of interest within it not least in his continued exploration of artificial intelligence in the shape of the android Jan; there was a general consensus that the second act, The Surprise Birthday, with its nascent love story of an android for a human was particularly strong and intriguing.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.

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