Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Surprises

Alan Ayckbourn
Chichester Festival Theatre, co-produced with the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Chichester Minerva Theatre

Richard Stacey as Jan Credit: Robert Day
Ayesha Antoine and Bill Champion Credit: Robert Day
Sarah Parks and Laura Doddington Credit: Robert Day

The biggest surprise here is that Alan Ayckbourn, at seventy-three and already the author of seventy-five plays, is still managing to surprise us with this new one.

True to form, the play opens with a cosy domestic scene, this time between father and recalcitrant teenage daughter discussing the suitability, or otherwise, of her boyfriend Tim. A very normal situation we can all recognise. There is, though, a little niggle in the mind wondering why the mother has been absent for five and half years, but it is not until the father (Bill Champion) mentions casually that “Yes” he has been to Mars that we realise we are already in the future, and a future not so far off at that.

The absent mother has shown her concern by programming a shot of pain for her daughter if she utters a swear word, resulting in young Grace’s conversation being peppered with “Ow!” as she becomes angry and Grace, indulged by her wealthy father, is rather spoilt, but still manages to be appealingly cute in Ayesha Antoine’s delightful interpretation.

Robots in human form deal with all the chores, a telephone call is from cyberspace at the press of a button, and people now have so many new body parts they are in danger of becoming androids themselves, the division becoming even more blurred as our particular android, Jan, has already been given permission to tell small lies and is capable of emotion—something which leads to confusion and trouble later as various complicated love tangles unfold.

The scene is set, but we are about to travel further into the future as Ben Porter’s time-travelling Titus arrives from fifty years ahead to persuade Grace to influence the outcome of an important meeting which will change the course of events. Will this be to their advantage or will the change cause even more problems?

The song opening scene two, “Love is here to Stay”, focusses on another problem addressed in the play. With an increasing aging population, possibly 180-year-olds not being unusual in the future, does love have any staying power, will it last the course? Love has enough trouble lasting more than a few years as it is, and sixty-year-old lawyer Lorraine (played with brisk efficiency by Sarah Parks) breaks down in tears finding that her celebrity chef husband is having an affair, while her lonely and lovelorn secretary Sylvia (Laura Doddington), at the beck and call of her boss and constantly on the move, running frantically in and out in ridiculously high heels, has to invent mythical boyfriends—funny and rather sad at the same time.

The play is often hilarious, particularly when Android Jan is on the scene, given to “inappropriate laughter” and played with exquisite dead-pan comedy by Richard Stacey, his speeches are given in expressionless monotone and messages are repeated verbatim, regardless of whether or not they are appropriate. The serious side leaves us pondering on our future but “We’re not supposed to see what’s ahead of us. Life is meant to be a surprise”.

It’s a bitter-sweet comedy which may leave the audience slightly bemused, but very enjoyable just the same. The old master hasn’t lost his touch.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor