Archive for March, 2013

Anyone seeing this production through to the end (which, at this performance, was far fewer than took their seats at the start) could be forgiven for ranking Stockport second only to the Black Hole of Calcutta as the bleakest location in the history of civilisation. Repeated explicitly throughout, this is the play’s sole message as it follows a small group through 14 years (1988-2002) of their teenage and young adult lives. No doubt this message is as welcome to the Greater Manchester Tourism Board as it is of interest to theatre audiences on London’s South Bank. This is an evening of almost unbroken gloom and tedium, defamatory to what is probably a very decent town and, still worse, to the great drink that shares the play’s name. The characters are stereotypes, human themes are under-developed, and the dialogue is completely lifeless. To be fair, a great deal of dialogue in some scenes is indecipherable from halfway back in the stalls, highlighting the question as to why the National decided to put this small play onto the Lyttelton’s huge stage. In playing teenagers, some of the actors seem to be mimicking Catherine Tate and Matt Lucas, but, unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing in the play that is intentionally funny. Any positives? Well Kate O’Flynn is on stage throughout, ageing from 11 to 24 and it is her stamina and some slick staging that earn the production its solitary star. Otherwise, this is a resounding dud.

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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