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surprises – Richmond Theatre, London

Writter &Director: Alan Ayckbourn

Reviewer: Tom Finch


surprises Oxford Playhouse- Robert DayAlan Ayckbourn’s 76th play opens in seemingly familiar surroundings. A brattish teenager, Grace. is defying her rich Dad by choosing a rough boyfriend. It is only after her Father has left does it become clear that this play is anything other than familiar. Soon, a man many years her senior arrives in a time machine, from the future revealing how he had been bought off by her father 50 years ago and now he has come back for her. If it sounds confusing that’s because it is.

Ayckbourn’s comedy comes up against a few difficulties which means this space age saga of love across the decades never really takes off. The unusual timeshifting that takes place means that characters spend an awfully long time discussing exposition most of which is shoehorned quite ungracefully into each scene.

There are a lot of ideas in this play and a lot of potentially very interesting questions are raised. If, for example, someone knows the future, can they change it? And if they did how it would affect the rest of the universe? Or what are the ethical issues involved if an android can feel love and falls for a human? Unfortunately all of these interesting ideas are never given room to breathe and instead they are given a brief mention before Aykbourn moves on to another idea. Films such as Bicentennial Man and A.i. have all examined these issues with far greater skill and finesse.

The play is a long evening of three acts each of which feel like miniplays in their own right, the moment of cohesion where all the stories come together fails to materialise leaving the whole affair feeling deeply unsatisfying. The first and third acts in particular are very slow to get going and as evidenced by the people leaving during the intervals were not suitably engaging to grab the audience’s attention. In a shorter play at maybe 90minutes one idea could have been really well examined. There are some very enjoyable moments in the second act as an android learns to always “concede gracefully” when in an argument with a woman.

Michael Holt’s set does little to pique the interest of the piece. The appearance of time machines and holograms, which with a little more ingenuity could have looked genuinely futuristic are achieved using very obvious means which detract from the supposed technological advancements of the age the play is set.

The cast work hard with the material they have but struggled to get more than a ripple of quiet laughter from the audience for most of the evening. They are also up against it with the broadly drawn characters none of whom are particularly interesting and rarely build up to three dimensions. Sarah Parks is the most successful playing a hardnosed lawyer who is hurt by love and finds companionship in an unlikely source. Although she is unable to make the relationship plausible it is through no fault of her own. Her fine skills are utilised elsewhere in a couple of cameo rôles which she brings real panache to. Richard Stacey as an android who has learned to feel love adds some much needed humour to the evening.

Runs until 23rd March

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