Home » Reviews » Off West End » Surprises, Watford Palace Theatre

Surprises, Watford Palace Theatre

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
★★★

Pros: Strong performances, engaging characters and some good old-fashioned human drama played out in an unusual setting.

Cons: The show attempts to ask, but then fails to address, questions about the future of mankind in the setting of technological development, which leaves you asking why Ayckbourn felt the need to set it when he did.

Our Verdict: A talented cast fill this play with interesting characters and some fascinating drama unfurls. Shame about the misplaced attempt at sci-fi.

Courtesy of Watford Palace Theatre

Several of the people sitting around me at this show spent a good amount of time explaining at great length how they weren’t expecting the play to be as they found it. If you were, in fact, only aware of Ayckbourn’s very early plays, this move to an overtly science fiction play would come as something of a surprise. However Ayckbourn says that his increasing focus upon science fiction and fantasy is more of a return to the stories and passions of his childhood. It is also an extension of the fantasy aspect which any play forces on its audience rather than a radical change.

It always amazes me that science fiction and fantasy are so underutilised on the stage. It’s not like there isn’t an historical precedent for it – many of Shakespeare’s plays involved magical aspects. However, as Ayckbourn himself discusses, using fantasy elements in an adult play remains a sure fire way to alienate huge chunks of the audience. I spent much of the first part of this three-act play wondering if such overt science fiction was working in this setting. The play begins by showing us the relationship between a father and daughter. Aside from questionable wardrobe choices, very little within the scene isn’t happening across the nation as we speak: over-protective father tries to prevent daughter from involving herself with boy he feels is rough. However, as things develop, technologies unfold, the setting of this scene in the future becomes more and more obvious.

And then, suddenly, some sort of carriage appears, and deposits on stage the aforementioned ‘rough’ boyfriend, but from 50 years in the future. The play then attempts to ask the frequently addressed question of what happens if you were to change past events with the knowledge of what the future holds. Can the results ever benefit anyone involved? My main problem with the play was that I don’t think it answered this question, or for that matter any of the other questions about the scientific advances of the human race that it was trying to address. What the play did manage to do very successfully was look at the universal themes of human drama. Love, family, loneliness, the passage of time and the intricate relationship between all of these were, to me, far more effectively portrayed by the talented cast of this play.

The play picked up pace in both the second and third acts. These scenes were far more engaging, but again it was the science fiction elements that clunked while the performances shone through. Richard Stacey’s portrayal of Jan, the lovelorn android, was both humorous and moving and Sarah Parks was equally first-rate as the object of his affections, a normally stonyfaced lawyer. But really I came away feeling I could take or leave the sci-fi elements. I think I’d recommend you stick to the human drama, Alan.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below!

Surprises runs at the Watford Palace Theatre until 9th March 2013 before continuing it’s national tour, details of which can be found here: .
Box office: 019232 256971 or book online at http://www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk/page/3087/Book-Online

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