Surprises @ Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Surprises is a word that covers all manner of sin. But in Alan Ayckbourn’s futuristic play, Romantic surprises are to be sought for. Consequently the audience is ironically warned not to peer too far into the future. You may not like what you see.

An anxiety about what the future holds has erupted in contemporary thinking and poured into literature and particularly theatre. It suggests a wariness at the digital age and a helplessness that it is similar to the writers of the Fin de Siecle in the turn of the eighteenth century.  Perhaps it is a consequence of Myan’s prophecies that has caste a sense of doom on our generation. Perhaps it is the economy, everything normally winds back to it, that makes us feel for the first time uncertain about our futures. For Ayckbourn, he claims it is the preoccupation with getting older. Yet rather than look drearily on, the play is a funny and clever anticipation for what is to come.

The futuristic world fitted out with gadgets and devices are distinctively theatre friendly. The best is the phone that allows the caller to see the person it is ringing as a hologram. This allowed for quick-witted and modern drama and the shuffling to-and-fro, on and off the stage, was well executed by the actors for comical affect. The sliding stage compartment acted well as a Time Machine and the use of sound recordings to establish its sound proofing shows the detail of thought put into the shows design to establish its futuristic context. The show’s two intervals allowed for stage adjustments, but the punctuations were sensible and added to the suspense of the story.

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The play, however, is not too sci-fi and it is clear Ayckbourn’s interest is secured in relationships: the new gadgets simply provide the perfect way to dismantle them for further inspection. What he recites is the old tale of teenage love thwarted by over concerned, rich parents. 17 year old Grace has fallen in love with rough-builder boyfriend, but her father bribes the boy to stay away. When the same boy, at sixty returns in a time machine, to warn Grace of her father’s interference, the big question is whether she can stop it and whether she should.

Despite all its modern context, Alan has clearly lapsed back into old stereotypes and women are still given the title of frailty: it conspires that Grace’s love will not stand the test of time. Yet worry not ladies, you don’t come off too badly and in the age of human androids, men are close to becoming obsolete. The brilliant Richard Stacey is hilarious as the modified android, whose passion for the strict, divorcee lawyer played by Sarah Parks is enduring. While he learns to ‘concede gracefully’ she takes human comfort in his affection for her. Stacey’s timing was superb and his bursts of emotion were well controlled to the amusement of the audience.

Whilst we care little for Grace’s love affair, it is the lawyer and her likeable assistant’s love dilemmas that are the most empathetic. Sylvia, played by Laura Doddington, conjures up all the comedy and tragedy of her middle-aged loneliness . She gives gusto to her love fantasies which turn out to be little more than affairs with Avatars. It is moments like this where we hear Ayckbourn tutting at the enforced isolation of the modern age. Yet he concedes in the end that as much as it is a source of evil, the new digital age may be used to connect people too. It is his measured ambivalence that allows the show to be comic and thought provoking at the same time, as we reflect on how much we like Surprises ourselves.

The show runs at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre until February 2nd with both matinee and evening performances.

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