For his 76th play Alan Ayckbourn returns to a genre which has already served him well – sci-fi.
Though not the one immediately associated with the prolific author it was used to great effect in Henceforward and Comic Potential.
Like any sci-fi, it stands or falls by the credibility of the world that is created. One ‘that could never happen’ then the audience refuses to go along for the rest of the ride. This not a problem with Surprises.
That desks will come with touch-pads or meetings conducted by ‘visu-link’ is not a million light years away right now. Time-travel may stretch the imagination a little further but it has been done before so not something an audience is not familiar with.
And sci-fi would not be complete without a robot. So Jan, played as though the android is a micro-chip short of a circuit – joins the ranks of CP3O, R2D2 and Marvin as robots with a human nature.
In Ayckbourn’s future, people also live a lot longer – 120 is nothing – and that gives an added dimension to one of his perennial themes – love. He asks can love between two people be sustained far beyond the three-score years and 10. His conclusion is not entirely gloomy.
Because, despite the setting not being Ayckbourn’s usual milieu, the themes are unmistakeably the seaside bard’s. Class, generation gap, staleness of marriage, battle of the sexes, cash, love and loneliness are explored just as they are in Absurd Person Singular – the revival which is running in rep with Surprises.
It also takes the opportunity to question the rise of the machines and the dominance of technology.
The cast of the two plays are the same. Here Ayesha Antoine is a spoiled only child, Bill Champion the self-made man, Richard Stacey a robot, Sarah Parks the high-flying executive unlucky in love, Laura Doddington the secretary with a fantasy love-life and Ben Porter as the young upstart on the make.
In the future, teenagers will still be petulant and at odds with their parents, infidelity and divorce and fantasy lives will still exist: basically falling and staying in love will not get easier despite all the technology in the world: a touch-pad may make meetings easier and virtual sex will be the norm but neither makes up for real human contact.
Characteristic, too, is Ayckbourn’s vision that women have the upper hand: as Bill Campion’s widower says success with women relies on two little words: concede graciously.
Yep, Surprises is funny, futuristic, hopeful, timeless and timely.
Review by Sue Wilkinson
• Surprises is showing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until July 28 and from September 11 to October 13.