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surprises – Oxford Playhouse

Writer: Alan Ayckbourn

Director: Alan Ayckbourn

Reviewer: Mary Tapper

[Rating: 2.5]

In his latest play Alan Ayckbourn is contemplating the future. To be more accurate he is thinking about how we are going to deal with love and relationships when we live to over 150 years of age. He is also wondering what the future will look like. Will we conquer time travel? Will androids be in common use and become accepted into society as they become more sophisticated? Will we colonise other planets and how will we cope with the distances involved? Will computer games evolve so that virtual lives become more important than real lives? Unfortunately, in trying to answer all these questions, Ayckbourn forgets to give us characters we can relate to and a plot that hangs together in a satisfying way.

The story starts with a father trying to persuade his daughter that she should not marry the boy she loves, as he has no prospects. As this story starts to unfold, we become quite interested in the possible outcome, but in the second act it is almost as though Ayckbourn has tired of the story and we switch focus to a lawyer, unsuccessful in love, who is courted by an android. In some ways this is the most successful part of the play with funny situations and dialogue and Richard Stacey providing an excellent and slightly sinister android. Sylvia, the PA to our lawyer, is also played with charm and vulnerability by Laura Doddington. But once again, in the third act, Ayckbourn flits away from a potentially intriguing dilemma and introduces a third storyline, involving virtual gaming, to complicate things further.

The play could have focussed on any one part of the story but, with such muddle and so many themes, it forgets that at the end of the day relationships are what we can relate to. With too little character development we do not care what happens and the unsatisfying ending feels shallow and unrealistic.

The set is basic and special effects are frankly below par. In a play based around the future, the sets look surprisingly current and attempts at portraying the technology of the future are both crude and low tech. Costumes are also simple and unimaginative, with little thought being given to how clothing would have developed over time. The flow of the play is frequently slowed down by conversations over the phone that feel both stilted and unnatural – nothing is added and the writing is often dull and only seems necessary to move the plot forward.

In the end Ayckbourn’s one message seems to be that we will all live too long and love will be hard. The play seems rather sad and tired – like the older generation telling the next that things were better in their day and that we are all doomed! As someone who has made his career out of observing the comedy of life’s small social interactions, here he is less successful at looking forward to unfamiliar situations and imagining how they would play out. It seems harsh to say it, as by this stage a playwright of his reputation has earned the right to experiment, but one can’t help wishing that Ayckbourn would stick to what he does best and leave the rest to others.

Runs until 23rd Feb

Picture: Robert Day

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  1. Avatar

    Very embarrassing – daren’t get a drink at the interval in case anyone recognised my Yorkshire accent! Acting was good especially the android but the idea behind the play never materialised. I always rated the playwright as providing middle class topics but this was third class. Some patrons did not return after the first interval – time to retire?

  2. Avatar
    Barry Saunders

    I saw this play at the Watford Palace Theatre last night. Ayckbourn has stopped producing beautifully crafted works and is now just churning them out. Quantity not quality. This play is so full of missed opportunities. The main aim seems to be to show the audience how clever the playwright is (and in this it fails)rather than tell a story.
    The acting is superb and the cast make the best of the material they are given. I agree totally with the comment that the set and special effects are poor. They don’t even seem current never mind futuristic!
    All in all this was an unsatisfactory evening’s entertainment. Not a total dead loss but not as good as it could (and should) have been.