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surprises – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Writer/Director: Alan Ayckbourn

Reviewer: Bill Avenell

[rating: 4]

There were a large number of students in a packed house at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and this gave a slightly different atmosphere to the normally rather reserved reception from the middle class heartland that Alan Ayckbourn has analysed and made fun of throughout his career. One can only wish they to be in one of those student’s classes to hear what they made of his 76th play. Would they come away feeling that they had witnessed a meaningful treatise on the problems of longevity, time-travel and all things science fiction or did they come away a bit confused by the complexities of the plot and the format of the play, finding it hard to immerse themselves in the production and the performances on stage.

The play, centring on the problems of increasing longevity, was in three acts, set in the future, the first showing rich, spoilt, adolescent Grace (Ayesha Antoine) arguing with her father Franklin (Bill Champion) over her boyfriend and then being visited from the future by a 68 year old version of said boyfriend Titus (Ben Porter), trying to set things straight. Part two unfolded a slightly different version of part one and introduced the sub plots of loneliness and the interaction between humans and machines, introducing us to Jan the Android (Richard Stacey), Lorraine the lawyer (Sarah Parks) and her P.A. Sylvia (Laura Doddington). Part three presumably attempted to pull the whole together although it was at this point that I was wondering whether I was watching 3 one act plays. But what was not in doubt was that, judging from the audience’s reactions, it was very much enjoyed.

The six strong cast played 13 rôles without a weak link among them. Richard Stacey as Jan stole the show with his wonderful portrayal of how an android might deal with being nearly but not quite human. Other standout performances was Laura Doddington’s depiction of terminal loneliness and Sarah Parks in the rôle of the power lawyer with the emotional secret. But it was a collective tour de force well supported by Michael Holt’s brilliant set, complete with futuristic props, itself reinforced by Jason Taylor’s lighting.

Last time I went to see an Ayckbourn production the direction proved to be somewhat disappointing, but the author was on song with this one. In true Ayckbourn style there were those trademark clever ideas, absurd situations and witty lines that brought the house down, more often than not when no one was expecting them.

Away from the buzz of the foyer my more practical companion couldn’t understand my reservations and, returning to the lecture room, I imagine the students may be arguing over whether or not they have seen a great play but will be in total agreement that they have seen a very good performance.


Runs until: 2nd February 2013 at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, then touring.



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