Absurd Person Singular – August 2012

7/10

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

A Stephen Joseph Theatre/CFT co-production

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 30th August 2012

Surprisingly, given that this production was directed by Ayckbourn himself, we didn’t find it quite as funny as a previous outing (Oct 2008). It was still good though, and great fun to see the cast of Surprises playing completely different characters.

Part of the difference tonight lay in the casting. While everyone was perfectly cast for the other play, and most were similarly good in this, I felt that Ayesha Antoine wasn’t convincing as the suicidal Eva in the second act. This was a great pity as that part is central to the comedy of the whole scene; she may not say a word until she starts singing at the end of the scene but her presence is crucial, and tonight it wasn’t strong enough for me. And for once the in-the-round space actually worked against the humour, as the focus was harder to maintain with bits of furniture and the building getting in the way.

Even so, we enjoyed the second act, and the darker aspects of the characters certainly came out strongly tonight. There was less business with the gin bottle in the third act, but that act is always less funny than the others as the characters mostly continue their downward spiral.

The sets were beautifully evocative of the three couples. The first was replete with aspirational Formica and linoleum, the second full of painted wood and raffia seats with wooden floorboards, while the final act had a stone flagged floor, an Aga and mpre upmarket wooden furniture. The costumes matched the sets, with the aspirational couple’s clothes improving in each scene. Not a bad production then, though not the best we’ve seen.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Surprises – August 2012 (2)

8/10

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Stephen Joseph Theatre and CFT co-production

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th August 2012

No surprises tonight, though the performances had all tightened up as the cast have become familiar with the Minerva space. The opening act was funnier – we laughed more – and although there were a few gaps again after the first interval, the rest of us clearly enjoyed ourselves, including the chap who sang along to the songs and completed the actors’ lines for them!

Some things I forgot to mention last time: each act began and ended with a song. The first one was Keep Young And Beautiful, a scratchy version suggesting an old recording. The others weren’t scratchy, but were old-style crooner ballads, don’t know which ones. I think they ended each act with the same song, but I’m not sure. The caption on the statue’s plinth was “Venus No 2”.

I wasn’t entirely sure last time if Sylvia’s crush was on Jan or Lorraine; I assumed from later developments that it had been Jan, but this time round it wasn’t so obvious.  The final scenes with the virtual reality and real characters both on stage at the same time were clearer tonight. Perhaps they’d changed their timing slightly, or perhaps it was the different angle, but I was aware of the real people saying their lines first, and the avatars following them. Later, when the couple were telling each other who they really were, the avatar or the real character would stay silent, miming the line at the same time as their counterpart spoke the line. This allowed their growing relationship to be highlighted without distracting us with too much repetition; after all, they were each moving past the need for a false persona to represent them in a fantasy world. Their final meeting, huddled together against the rain, was quite moving, and I had to wipe away the moisture from my eyes before I applauded. Lovely.

From the post-show, I gathered that in the Stephen Joseph Theatre the front row are practically sitting on the stage, so the cast enjoyed having a little more room in the Minerva. A lot of the discussion got bogged down in what the play was about, which I didn’t find so interesting, but the cast seem to be having a good time down here, which is nice. As often happens, I thought of my ‘burning’ questions afterwards – too late!

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Surprises – August 2012

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me