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Surprises (Tour - Oxford)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Alan Ayckbourn’s latest piece is one of his occasional ventures into the realm of sci-fi. There’s some advanced technology, an android, and even a smattering of time travel. Yet despite the futuristic twist, this is fundamentally a play about relationships. As is frequently the case in Ayckbourn, they’re mostly not happy relationships – but that doesn’t prevent there from being a good number of laughs along the way.

Plots involving non-standard timelines run the risk of being confusing, but in this case the story is clearly told by a small but energetic cast, doubling and sometimes tripling to cover all the roles. The fifty year time span the play covers presents its own challenges (it’s made clear early on that advances in cosmetic surgery mean everyone is very well preserved), but it does provide a welcome chance to see multiple aspects of the major characters as events unfold.

The stand-out performance for me was Richard Stacey as the android Jan – not an easy type of role to pull off, but he does so accomplishedly. Bill Champion as Franklin and Ben Porter as Titus are also strong, and Sarah Parks and Laura Doddington give pleasingly nuanced performances as formidable lawyer Lorraine and her somewhat less together assistant Sylvia. The characters are, on the whole, a flawed bunch with much that ought to make them difficult to warm to (I heard more than one person comment in the interval that Jan often seemed the most human figure on stage), and it is greatly to the cast’s credit that they manage to bring out their characters’ softer, more vulnerable side, and enable us to empathize with them.

Surprisingly, some aspects of the plot are curiously un-modern: a sixteen year old insistent on marrying her eighteen year old boyfriend immediately is stretching the bounds of credibility today, let alone in a society where life expectancy is greatly extended. And I couldn’t help feeling that while some interesting themes are touched on, these aren’t explored as fully as they could be. The play asks – among other things – whether it’s realistic to expect human love to endure as lifespans grow ever longer, and what the consequences might be of seeing one’s own future, but these are deep veins to be mined, and this piece doesn’t have a chance to do much more than scratch the surface.

In the end, it’s a play that provides a good evening out: it will make you chuckle and may make you think, but it’s unlikely to send you home with any stunning new insights about the human condition.

Meriel Patrick


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