It seems redundant to call an Alan Ayckbourn play Surprises – these are guaranteed with the Scarborough Master. In this play, set 50 years in the future and a further 50 beyond that, the surprises come in many forms: the technological developments, the plot twists, the relationships. However, they tend to be ingenious rather than inspired. Before seeing the play, I got into a discussion about how many plays you would have to include in “The Best of Ayckbourn”. The number, we decided, is remarkably high from all phases of his career; Surprises doesn’t belong there, but it is an interesting play, with some bursts of irresistible comedy and a fresh take on science fiction.
The opening is a futuristic version of a familiar scene: rich father warns spoiled teenage daughter off unsuitable fiancé (a labourer) and she resists. The futuristic element initially comes in the form of imaginative gadgetry, notably the control systems Franklin imposes on daughter Grace: automatic servants will only respond if she uses “Please” and every obscenity she uses is cut short by a sudden shock. Science fiction as a serious driver of the plot comes when her fiancé, about to be bought off by her father, appears, apparently rich and successful, from 50 years in the future. If they reverse the decision on her father’s offer, what effect will it have? Can the future be changed when it’s already the past?
This is Ayckbourn and the answers are not the obvious ones. The final, rather moving scene (in a play of no great emotional warmth) involves a totally unexpected bringing together of characters. The play also takes a cool look at love in a time when people live to be 150: how long can love last?
An excellent cast of six doubles parts with zest, only Bill Champion’s Franklin, dominating by understatement, remaining constant throughout. Leaving aside the eccentric or caricatured bit parts that all have fun with, Ayesha Antoine’s expressive, self-obsessed Grace, Sarah Parks’ ultra-efficient, emotionally tortured lawyer and Laura Doddington’s bright, compulsively loquacious, desperately lonely secretary convince and amuse – and all age most effectively, bearing in mind that 80 is the new 40! Titus, the unsuitable suitor, is an ambiguous character and Ben Porter’s reading gains depth as the play progresses. Richard Stacey gratefully accepts the gift of the part of Jan, the android with social and emotional modifications, poised between feeling and non-feeling, exploring the boundaries of literalness and revealing a terrifying range of inappropriate laughs.
Thanks to designer Michael Holt and technical manager Paul Stear futuristic props do great service both as set dressing and as key features in the plot, notably the Hipro, a sort of phone call to a hologram, used cleverly, if perhaps too frequently.
Surprises runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until 13 October.