Surprises*** (Palace Theatre Watford, 5 March 2013)

Posted: March 6, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

76 plays and still going strong. Just how strong is the most pleasant surprise of Alan Ayckbourn’s new romantic comedy. Not for the first time, he delves into the world of the future, but his characters and his dialogue remain very much rooted in his familiar territory of Middle England. The playwright describes it as science fiction used as an allegory to reflect what is happening today. He sees a future which will include inter-planetary journeys, time travel, delayed ageing, longer life expectancy, androids and a host of new gadgets. His point is that the impact of these things is not really different from that of the trappings and paraphernalia that surround present day lives and that, ultimately, they are insignificant in relation to people and to genuine human emotions. The play is in three acts, each focussing on different characters, but with linked story lines, which are fanciful and just about strong enough to carry us with them at the time, even if they do not stand up well to analysis after the curtain falls. The middle act is easily the strongest. Here the dalliance between Sarah Parks as a high-flying but emotionally fragile lawyer and Richard Stacey as a malfunctioning android is both hilarious and touching; she always needing to be right, he always simply right. This act also introduces us to Laura Doddington as a panic-stricken Personal Assistant, who seems destined to be eternally single. The other actors making up an excellent cast are Ayesha Antoine, Bill Champion and Ben Porter, all the cast doubling up for the minor roles. Michael Holt’s sets are futuristic without being bleak, endorsing the point that the future is not such a giant leap from the present. A minor criticism is that the pace becomes too slow in sections of the first and last acts where some careful editing could have been beneficial; maybe it is not always best for a writer to direct his own work. However, overall, this is amusing, thought-provoking and moving. Having started (as with almost all Ayckbourn’s work) in Scarborough and then moved to Chichester and a number of other locations, a final surprise is that Surprises has not yet found a home in the West End. London producers remain as keen as ever to revive the writer’s plays from decades ago, some of which are now looking rather tired, and they need to take note that he is still alive and still turning out entertaining and relevant works.

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