Surprises – theatre review

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Alan Ayckbourn has always had an eye to the future, as we know from predictive pieces such as Henceforward and Communicating Doors. Now, in his 76th play, co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, he indulges his passion for science fiction to the full. While the result has a mad inventiveness, it sometimes feels as if we are watching three one-act plays, on totally different themes, rather than one three-act play.

Ayckbourn starts by asking whether the future, if it can be foreseen, can also be forestalled. Plunging us into a fully automated, intergalactic world, he shows some things remain reassuringly the same – we see 17-year-old Grace defying her rich dad by choosing a rough boyfriend. But, when the time-travelling lover appears from 50 years in the future to reveal how he was bought off by the father, the big question is whether Grace can prevent it happening. Unfortunately the question is no sooner raised than dropped. As so often with sci-fi, ideas also take precedence over character: although there are odd funny lines, such as one about Grace's mum "hurtling round the solar system with a toolbox," we never really care about the people.

Only in the second act does the play joyously take off. The great comic theorist Henri Bergson taught us that human beings are funny when they behave like machines: Ayckbourn reverses that by showing that machines are funny when they behave like humans. In this instance it is an android security guard who is utterly besotted by an outwardly tough 60-year-old female lawyer; and, in a performance recalling Janie Dee's "actoid" in Ayckbourn's 1998 Comic Potential, Richard Stacey is brilliant as the modified android given to sudden peals of hysterical laughter and carefully parroted phrases such as "I concede gracefully" when contradicted by his beloved. Thankfully Stacey reappears in the final act, in which Ayckbourn advances the notion intended to bind the whole evening together: that longevity will have terrifying consequences for love and affairs of the heart.

There are probably more pressing problems confronting society. But Ayckbourn and his technical team, including Michael Holt as designer, show astonishing ingenuity in creating, among many other things, an elliptical device for communicating with holograms. Sarah Parks as the briskly authoritative lawyer, Laura Doddington as a lovelorn PA smitten by deep-sea divers and space pilots, and Ayesha Antoine as the future-fixing Grace also give very lively performances. In the end, however, I feel Ayckbourn's genius resides less in exploring his fears for the fantastic future than in diagnosing the ills of the immediate present.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hero's Welcome review – Alan Ayckbourn surprises us yet again
The playwright directs a well-acted and ruefully comic view of marital breakdown, mayhem and murder

Michael Billington

09, Sep, 2015 @11:44 AM

Article image
Karaoke Theatre Company review – Alan Ayckbourn's brilliantly bad new comedy
A seemingly second-rate improv troupe zips through dated scenarios – expecting full audience participation – in Ayckbourn’s ridiculously funny spoof

Alfred Hickling

13, Jul, 2016 @11:28 AM

Article image
Dear Uncle – review

Though the Cumbrian context and plus-fours are unfamiliar, this play is entirely Chekhovian in essence, writes Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

14, Jul, 2011 @4:14 PM

Article image
Confusions review – Ayckbourn's triumphant return to his 1974 curiosity
A cast of five take on more than 20 roles in this notoriously tricky Acykbourn comedy – but it all makes more sense than ever in a terrific revival directed by the man himself

Alfred Hickling

19, Jul, 2015 @4:17 PM

Article image
The Boy Who Fell Into a Book review – an engrossingly surreal spectacle

The musical version of Alan Ayckbourn's play for young people is an ideal introduction to the pleasures of reading and the power of the theatre, writes Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

23, Jul, 2014 @3:31 PM

Article image
No Knowing review – Alan Ayckbourn presents more gift-wrapped explosives
In two Christmas stocking-fillers, Knowing Her and Knowing Him, a couple celebrating 40 years of marriage discover the deep freeze in their relationship

Alfred Hickling

07, Dec, 2016 @12:44 PM

Article image
My Wonderful Day | Theatre review

Stephen Joseph, ScarboroughAyesha Antoine is a revelation as a nine-year-old with a watchful eye in Alan Aycbourn's latest work, writes Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

19, Oct, 2009 @9:45 PM

Article image
Theatre review: The Pirates of Penzance | Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
In tutus and Lycra, these wryly altered Pirates tread the planks to hilarious effect, writes Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

21, Jul, 2009 @8:35 PM

Article image
'Canary in the coalmine': Scarborough's Stephen Joseph theatre reopens for autumn
John Godber’s B&B drama – performed by the playwright, with his family – launches programme that includes one-woman Christmas show

Chris Wiegand

19, Aug, 2020 @12:47 PM

Theatre: My Wonderful Day, Scarborough
Stephen Joseph Theatre, to 31 Oct

Lyn Gardner

09, Oct, 2009 @11:05 PM