Surprises at the Chichester Theatre

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play takes us away from his usual examination of the middle-class, middle-aged demographic into the realm of science fiction. Set in a future ("sometime soon" yet far enough away for Mars to be colonised), we're in a world where characters live for up to 200 years.

For someone who predicted the rise of the Thatcherite class in Absurd Person Singular, Ayckbourn's take is politically naïve. Characters are routinely living 100 years longer and androids are doing all the manual work, yet there's no indication that unemployment is an issue, nor any sense of conflict.

That's not Ayckbourn's pre-occupation. As one of the characters, Franklin, points out, what's to become of love when people live so long? "Till death us to part was alright when we lived three score years and ten - although some found that hard enough -- but what when we're living seven score years and ten?" If Philip Larkin says that what will survive is love, Ayckbourn is saying the opposite, love can't survive the constant medical advances that we're subjecting ourselves to.

With the longevity comes a sort of perpetual youth so we're in a world where 60-year-olds are behaving like teenagers.

The star turn is Richard Stacey as a love-lorn android, coming to terms with the human emotions he has been given."My sub-routine has been programmed for occasional harmless untruths," he points out. The point is that his relationship with Sarah Parks' tough corporate lawyer (there's no shortage of them, of course) is just as valid as the other relationships.

There are some other strong performances. Laura Doddington is convincing as a lonely PA, Ben Parker corners the field in devious husbands: either manipulating time machines to try to fix the future, or as a TV cook (no shortage of them either) intent on extramarital activity.

There are some fascinating ideas in the work but it doesn't really gel as a piece. It seems that Ayckbourn, who also directed this, can't decide between whether it's a social satire or an examination of the nature of love. It falls uncomfortably between the two.

Photo:Robert Day

- by Maxwell Cooter