Surprises – August 2012


By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Alan Ayckbourn

CFT and Stephen Joseph Theatre co-production

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th August 2012

Although this play has been performed already at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, this was its first performance at the Minerva, and it will probably need one or two more performances to fully settle down. Not that there were many problems tonight; the performances were excellent as usual, and despite a tricky storyline which involved time travel and a fifty year gap between time periods, I think I followed it all pretty well.

The first act started with Keep Young & Beautiful played over darkness. The lights came up on a set containing a round bed with a purple cover, pink heart-shaped cushions, a few toys, a chair, a skipping rope – clearly a young girl’s bedroom. In the opening scene the father, Franklin, was trying to talk his daughter Grace into dumping her unsuitable boyfriend Titus (known as Tim to begin with). We soon found out that Franklin was arranging for his lawyer to bribe the boyfriend to stay away from Grace. Shortly after Franklin left his daughter, we were introduced to the time travel element, with Titus coming back from the future to take her back with him, using the very device which he and his partner Fizz had built with the bribery money. After freaking out at having a strange man appear in her bedroom (and who wouldn’t?) she turned his offer down as she didn’t fancy their chances with a fifty year age difference. Instead, she decided to stop the Titus and Fizz in her time from taking the bribe money and/or giving her up. That way, she reckoned they would be together in fifty years’ time anyway. Another visit from the future suggested this plan hadn’t worked as she expected. Interval.

As well as introducing the characters and situation, plus the time travel aspects, there was plenty of humour to warm us all up. With so much new technology in this near future setting, Grace had been given a brain implant to stop her swearing, and the humour lay in us recognising what she wanted to say, but couldn’t. The present day emphasis on presentation over substance took a few hits as well, but mainly this act prepared us for what was to come.

During the interval, the next set took shape: an office space with a geometric carpet, desk, seats and a low table. The colour scheme was red and black, with grey stripes on the carpet. To one side of the stage was a Henry Moore-like sculpture on a plinth – don’t remember what the caption said. In the front right corner was a round platform with lights and the name ‘HIPRO’ on the front, which turned out to be a device for holographic phone calls. All the sets were arranged on chequerboard flooring.

The second act showed us the arrangements for the bribery meeting from the lawyer’s point of view and involved a scatty blond secretary, Sylvia, who has a crush on a security and maintenance android called Jan. He has a crush on their lawyer boss, Lorraine, while Lorraine’s cheating celebrity chefedian (combination chef and comedian) husband kept calling her on the HIPRO to try and talk her out of a divorce, which thanks to the prenup would be disastrous for him. It was also Lorraine’s birthday, and all of Jan’s attempts to impress her with presents failed miserably – having just discovered her husband’s latest infidelity, she was in no mood to be reminded that she’d turned sixty.

The bribery meeting took place off stage, and this time Fizz was happy to take the deal but Titus said no, so what will happen in act three? With the meeting being elsewhere, Franklin waited in Lorraine’s office to hear the result, and found himself unexpectedly giving relationship advice to an android. The expensive bottle of brandy he suggested as a present worked better for Jan than anything else; after a few swigs Lorraine gave in to her need for a cuddle, and Jan was the only ‘person’ available. Result.

The third set had two office spaces, with the HIPRO in a different corner, different geometrically shaped rugs, two desks and chairs. This was the future, and we learned that Titus was now working for Franklin, running the company that made the time travel device which Fizz developed. He and Grace were still married, but in name only. She was living on Mars (or the moon?) with her father and still behaving like a teenage girl, even though she was over sixty. Titus may have been successful, but as the boss’s son-in-law he wasn’t respected, whereas in the version of the future where he’d taken the money and left Grace he had been running his own business. This was what he kept trying to put right by frequent trips back in time, but he kept missing Grace and the technological problem was that with each stop in that time zone the window closed a bit more.

Finally he and Grace accepted they would divorce, and feeling extremely lonely he turned to another person whom he’d met through a virtual reality sex program. We had seen them in a clinch at the beginning of this act, interrupted by Franklin calling Titus from Mars. The other person was none other than Sylvia, Lorraine’s secretary from act two, who was still working for the same firm of lawyers and still on her own. A visit from Jan and Lorraine, now one hundred and ten, made it clear she would have to find love elsewhere and she also turned to her virtual reality partner in response to her own loneliness. So there was a kind of happy ending, with two people actually meeting up in person, liking each other and starting out on what may be a wonderful relationship for them both (but this is Ayckbourn, so don’t expect happy ever after).

          The plot seems much more complex when I have to write it down; Ayckbourn is such a good writer that we can follow the twists and turns quite easily as we’re watching the play without realising how complicated the plot is. While there was plenty of humour all the way through, this seems to be more of an ideas play with lots of thought-provoking questions to ponder. The main story was complemented by additional elements such as the time tourists, a pair of Essex ladies from the look of them, and the android bartender in the virtual reality bar where Titus and Sylvia went to get hooked up. Sarah Parks played the bartender and also Lorraine, doing a great job in both parts, while Richard Stacey, who also played Fabiano, Titus’s avatar in virtual reality, was superb as Jan. He played the android’s movements perfectly, not that I’ve ever seen one, and gave us some of the funniest moments of the play. Ayesha Antoine, who played Winnie in My Wonderful Day (Jan 2010), was both Grace and Seraphina, Sylvia’s avatar, and did a fine job in each, while Laura Doddington’s Sylvia was a superb performance; her crush on Jan was obvious to us, though not to him. Bill Champion (Franklin) and Ben Porter (Titus) completed the cast, and although their parts had fewer laughs, they were just as good. Alan Ayckbourn was present at tonight’s performance, so as we’ve booked to see this one again it will be interesting to see what, if anything, changes.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at